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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Asashoryu fiasco illustrates incompetence of sumo's leaders


Enough already.

Jack Gallagher

That's my feeling about the ongoing soap opera involving yokozuna Asashoryu and the Japan Sumo Association.

It is nothing short of amazing how this whole saga has been generated into a federal case by the Japanese media and the JSA. I think it reveals a lot more about them than the Mongolian wrestler.

And to think it all started with good intentions. One star (Hidetoshi Nakata) asking another (Asashoryu) to take part in a charity soccer match in Mongolia. The pair met by chance on an airplane, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If Asashoryu was the derelict he is being made out to be by the media and the JSA, he would have never agreed to participate in the event in the first place.

That's right, you've heard all the adjectives — selfish, egotistical, irresponsible. But none of them resonate with me.

The latest twist comes with the news that Asashoryu is "planning" to make an apology upon his return to Japan from Mongolia.

Do these guys really believe people will fall for that?

I think there are two issues at work here. One is generational, the other cultural.

Without question, Asashoryu used poor judgment in choosing to participate in the match after having been given a medical waiver to skip a regional sumo tour in Hokkaido in August.

When television footage of the now infamous match was shown here, the "outraged" folks up north were practically calling for the yokozuna's head. Or at least that's the way it has been portrayed.

My guess is that the local promoters in Hokkaido were none too happy when they heard the big man wasn't coming to their events, and when they got wind of Asashoryu's actions, thought they could make a bit of hay out of it, with help from the media.

Sure enough, the story grew like wildfire until the JSA hit Asashoryu with an unprecedented two-tournament suspension on Aug. 1.

Case closed?

Well, not quite like the JSA wanted.

Instead of a repentant yokozuna, it got a seriously depressed one who required medical treatment, resulting in days of more negative coverage of the sumo community.

News photo
Asashoryu's suspension has been handled poorly by the Japan Sumo Association, resulting in the yokozuna's depression and massive negative publicity for the sport. KYODO PHOTO

It was another instance of the JSA's seriously backward ways.

The people who run the organization are old and antiquated in their thinking, and were more concerned with making an example out of Asashoryu, than taking into account the overall welfare of the sport.

Singer Gil Scott-Heron once said: "America loves to live in the past, even if it was only last week."

Well, it seems as if the JSA is still living in another century — the 19th. The handling of Asashoryu's case illustrates this.

The Mongolian isn't the first 26-year-old who has done something unwise, and won't be the last, but it seems evident to me that he has been treated unfairly.

He most certainly has a different temperament than the foreign yokozuna (Akebono, Musashimaru) who came before him. So expecting him to act like they did is illogical.

Some people may not like that, but that's the way it is.

The prevailing opinion from the Japanese critics of Asashoryu centers around why he can't behave like the Japanese rikishi do.

But that is precisely the point — Asashoryu is not Japanese. Expecting him to act Japanese is not realistic.

The punishment in this case clearly did not fit the alleged crime.

Back in December of 2000, maegashira Toki hit and killed a pedestrian while driving in Osaka. It was sad enough that somebody died as a result of his carelessness, but it didn't help matters that sumo wrestlers are prohibited from driving while still active.

Nevertheless, Toki, who is Japanese, was suspended for just one tournament for his negligence.

Seems like a bit of a double standard, doesn't it?

There will be those who say, "The yokozuna has to be held to a higher standard."

I wonder what would have happened if Asashoryu's alleged transgression had been committed by a Japanese yokozuna?

That would be impossible now, because there hasn't been a Japanese yokozuna for more than 4 1/2 years, since Takanohana retired in January 2003.

Which brings us back to the JSA. Let's face it, folks, if sumo continues on its current course, it is on the road to oblivion.

The vacuum in leadership and vision in the organization is immense. Tickets sales and television ratings continue to decline for the six major tournaments held each year.

For years the official JSA Web site stated openly, almost proudly, "No English is spoken in our office."

Boy, that's really progressive, isn't it?

The J. League and Nippon Professional Baseball both have several staff who can speak English. But the sumo guys just don't get it.

What is even more worrisome is the lack of interest shown by the Japanese youth in sumo. It is often referred to as "Japan's national sport," but I don't think that is anywhere close to the truth now.

I will bet there are a lot of kids on the street who could not tell you the name of the two current yokozuna, but they could surely tell you who Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are.

Sumo still contains a great allure for those outside the country. It is synonymous with Japan and serves as a great ambassador for the nation.

But if the sumo elders don't get their act together quickly, the sport will continue on its downward spiral, which would be a real tragedy.



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