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Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011
Sumo looks to rebound after scandal-tainted campaign
A: "Let's hit hard at the face-off and please just go with the flow after that."
B: "Gotcha! I'll put up a bit of a struggle but go with the flow."
This stranger than fiction text message exchange, just one of many which uncovered a veritable "Cheaters' Guide to Sumo," embodied the depths to which the ancient sport had fallen in 2011 — once again caught with its collective pants down, its sullied loincloth flapping in the wind.
To say the least, the match-fixing scandal that came to light on Feb. 2, 2011, would become the core issue.
It could not be glossed over by more dominant performances by Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho, the retirement of ozeki Kaio, or the promotion of Japanese wrestlers Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato near year's end to fill Kaio's void at the second-highest rank.
In what resembled months upon months of kabuki theater, officials of the Japan Sumo Association centering on chairman Hanaregoma cried foul play and even canceled the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in the wake of the scandal, as a show of good faith amid a public outcry.
Of course, they had no knowledge that so many wrestlers and coaches were involved in a widespread match-fixing racket, rumors of which had circulated inside and outside sumo for years and had been reported in newspapers as far back as the Meiji period (1868-1911).
Perhaps the JSA had felt vindicated after the Supreme Court upheld two high court rulings in a lawsuit against weekly Shukan Gendai, which had accused wrestlers including former yokozuna Asashoryu of bout rigging.
But after police, who were conducting a separate investigation into an illegal sumo gambling ring, found text messages initially incriminating at least 13 wrestlers and coaches of buying and selling wins for several hundred thousand yen per bout, there was no room left for denials.
"I feel great indignation and sorrow. I want to apologize to fans from the bottom of my heart," Hanaregoma had said at the time.
Funny, but hadn't we heard similar refrains before?
Oh right, that would have been when the JSA said it regretted a pro baseball gambling racket from a year earlier, or maybe it was for the marijuana smoking by wrestlers who were kicked out in 2009, or perhaps it was when a 17-year-old junior wrestler died from a group hazing in 2007.
The JSA, in fact, set up its own internal investigation to get to the bottom of the bout rigging and eventually handed out pink slips to 25 wrestlers and coaches on April 25.
Cellphones were prohibited in dressing rooms to prevent a recurrence of bout rigging and the JSA went to even further lengths by holding an unofficial "Technical Examination Grand Tournament" that was free to the public in May, instead of the normally held Summer Basho.
The 26-year-old Hakuho won four of the five basho held and Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji was the only other wrestler to cart home a trophy, after winning top honors at the Nagoya Basho.
Although Japanese wrestlers once again were denied a title victory, there was at least some bright news in a year overshadowed by darkness in the sport and the tragedy of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Kaio drew the curtain on an illustrious, injury-plagued career by rewriting former yokozuna Chiyonofuji's all-time career wins record, notching 1,047 career victories before his retirement.
Kotoshogiku, came up short in his ozeki bid in Nagoya before securing promotion at the autumn meet in September to become the first Japanese to achieve ozeki status in four years. Kisenosato soon followed suit.
Throughout all the turmoil, the JSA is still uncertain of its future status as a government-affiliated entity with tax benefits, as this will soon be up for renewal.
"I think the New Year meet is going to be exciting. Wrestlers like (sekiwake) Toyonoshima and the lower-ranking guys are really aiming high," said stable elder Tamanoi, who was the last Japanese to win a title as ozeki Tochiazuma at the 2006 New Year Basho.