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Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008

SPORTS SCOPE

Kitanoumi epitomizes all that is wrong with sumo


Every time I hear somebody refer to sumo as "Japan's national sport," I just have to shake my head in amazement.

Jack Gallagher

It hasn't been that for a long time and may never be again.

I think "ancient and traditional sport" is more accurate these days, and with the way things have been going the past year, hopefully "traditional" can be dropped from the description some time soon.

Let's face it, sumo is in a crisis that it has never seen before.

Spinning out of control, lacking true leadership or any vision for the future, with a select few keeping a stranglehold on the sport and slowly sucking the life out of it.

The resignation of Japan Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi last Monday was just the latest in a litany of black eyes for sumo.

In fact, the 55-year-old former yokozuna illustrates precisely why sumo is in its current state.

He was the head of the JSA for more than six years, but under his tenure things didn't stay the same, they got progressively worse.

What defies comprehension is his seeming unawareness to what was going on around him and refusal to take responsibility until an incredible amount of harm had been done to sumo's standing with the public.

So clueless was Kitanoumi that he practically had to be strong-armed out the door. It is precisely this kind of stubbornness and arrogance that has brought sumo to this point.

Kitanoumi should have been forced out last year, following the beating death of Tokitaizan, a young wrestler in the Tokitsukaze stable, but passed the buck and continued on.

When Russian wrestler Wakanoho was expelled by the JSA last month following his arrest for possession of marijuana, Kitanoumi again had a chance to take responsibility but refused. It was a pathetic show of power.

Only after the most recent embarrassment, the failure of Russian wrestlers Roho and Hakurozan (a member of Kitanoumi's stable) to pass drug tests administered by the JSA, and prodding from his colleagues, did Kitanoumi finally go.

News photo
End of an error: Kitanoumi's reign as chairman of the Japan Sumo Association came to a halt last Monday. KYODO PHOTO

But even with Kitanoumi leaving, replaced by fellow stable master Musashigawa (former yokozuna Mienoumi), it raises the issue of whether anything is really going to change, or if it will just be business as usual, with the sport trying to stay under the radar for the next few years.

I don't think another sumo wrestler should be running the JSA. There are just too many conflicts of interest and an old boy network that goes back ages to bring about real change.

There is talk of an outside board looking over the JSA, but that is not the solution.

I propose the hiring of a proper sports executive — somebody with credibility like Japan Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda — to clean house and set a strategic course for the future. Somebody who knows Japan and understands the bigger picture of how sports work in this day and age.

The potential is there for sumo to once again be great, but not the way the JSA is currently set up.

Here are some other moves that I think would help broaden interest and revitalize the sport:

• Make better geographic use of the six annual tournaments. Having half of them in Tokyo every year makes no sense at all. Hold one in Sapporo and another in Sendai.

• Change the starting times of the makuuchi bouts. Having them on television between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day makes it very difficult for a large number of viewers to see them live. People are either at work, on their way home, or otherwise occupied.

• Establish a marketing department that knows how to do something besides just pick up the phone. Take a page out of the J. League's book and be aggressive. Target youngsters and female fans.

• Archive all of the tournaments' videos on the Internet with commentary in English. With the time difference it is tough for folks outside of Japan to see the bouts live. The one place that sumo has retained its interest is with fans overseas. Give them a better chance to follow the sport and increase the international fan base.

With foreign wrestlers dominating for the past several years, and no hopes of a Japanese yokozuna anywhere in sight, interest in sumo has been steadily declining. The turning point appears to have been the sudden, and unfortunate, retirement of yokozuna Takanohana in early 2003, following a serious knee injury.

Asashoryu, who is Mongolian, stepped up and quickly claimed the mantel as the sport's top dog, but it just hasn't resonated with the public.

Sure, his bad boy antics make good copy for the Japanese sports newspapers and television talk shows, but it has not translated into more serious interest in sumo.

Japan is a primarily homogeneous society, which wants to see its athletes do well, especially in the most Japanese of sports, but the cupboard has been bare for a long while now.

Fewer and fewer Japanese kids are interested in or participating in sumo, which spells a bleak future for what was once a very compelling discipline.

Ticket sales have been declining for years, and even a show like "Sumo Digest," which was on terrestrial television for decades, has now been relegated to NHK's satellite channel.

These are all reasons why urgent action must be taken to try and repair the massive damage to what was once considered the most honorable of sports.



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