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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Nagoya Basho 2010 — a tournament that will live in infamy


Special to The Japan Times Online

For two months sumo has been rocked to its core by evidence of illegal gambling on baseball games, involvement with the Japanese underworld, and more recently claims by the man on the street that those in positions of power within the sumo association did precious little to stop this.

Documented in recent weeks in media around the world, sumo's long standing links to those involved in organized crime did, at first, look like they could derail the sport permanently. At the very least it appeared as if the tournament scheduled to begin on July 11 would be cancelled.

Dismissals of one ozeki and one stable master, house arrest for some, forced absence from the basho for others, and a huge helping of humble pie for all connected to sumo has pacified many and the latest is that the basho will still go ahead, though, in a huge blow to fans, NHK will not broadcasting the event live.

Down in Nagoya, tickets sales are hardly looking promising. This, coupled with the organizers' offer of full ticket refunds for those now not wishing to attend, could prove devastating, not only in terms of income generated from ticket sales, but also for local businesses including hotels, restaurants and the like for whom the basho coming to town each summer is a financial godsend.

In as far as the rikishi go unaffected — at least directly so — by the penalties dished out, preparations have been a lot quieter than they might normally be. PR events at which rikishi might spar with kids from a local kindergarten or neighborhood association have largely been cancelled. Opportunities to meet and greet the local population have all but vanished and the media is essentially ignoring training reports from the stables.

When all is said and done, the show will go on. The 650 or so men in six divisions that will attend are getting their heads down and working as hard as they can in the stifling heat. Regardless of opponent or tabloid headlines they'll be be giving their all once the tournament gets underway on Sunday morning.

The Japanese tendency to accept group responsibility will be something the global media are looking for when the usual welcome speeches are made later the same day. This time, though, we won't be hearing from sumo assocation head Musashigawa Rijicho, as two of his senior wrestlers have been implicated in the gambling hullabaloo and what many have termed sumo's darkest hour.

For those in the changing rooms though the hopes will be high that they can take advantage of absent seniors and fill the empty slots. 0-0-15 records will indeed guarantee some major nosedives down the banzuke come the Aki Basho in September.

Seven definite vacancies in the top makunouchi division will need to be filled daily to keep the program running as normal as possible for the fans, although it is likely that a reduced number of senior flight bouts will take place and there will be some utilizing of a number of rikishi promoted from juryo for the day.

Juryo has a similar problem as this much smaller division of just 28 men will also have four rikishi absent, likely giving some of those at the top of the third makushita division the chance to appear in the final bouts wearing an oicho — the form of hairstyle only reserved for sekitori salaried rikishi that resembles a ginkgo leaf.

Ironically, despite all the fuss being made over penalties and absences, not many sumo fans think it will have affect the decision of the eventual winner, in either the top division or juryo. The names of those absent are "big" in as far as sumo goes but none have proven real ground-shakers of late. (The joke going around the circuit in Japan that they were too busy focusing on baseball.)

Perhaps the biggest — or saddest — shock of all came with the announcement that Okinoumi of Hakkaku Beya and Goeido of Sakaigawa Beya were both involved and will thus end with the pre-determined 0-0-15 record no rikishi ever wants on his career record. The former will drop down a division after Nagoya, and latter may survive at the foot of makunouchi, but both are young and strong enough to eventually bounce back, hopefully free of their gambling issues, and able to lead from the front in the years ahead. However, how this will affect any subsequent promotions in sanyaku, where form as well as stats is an issue is anyone's guess.



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