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Sumo wrestling wracked by jumbo-size scandals

TOKYO – While Japanese sports fans have been spending many sleepness nights following the World Cup excitement unfolding in South Africa, organizers of Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling, have been scrambling to contain a gambling scandal that has threatened the cancellation of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July.

Photo by Phillippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Kotomitsuki, above, is currently at the forefront of the latest scandal to hit the world of sumo wrestling in Japan.

The scandal first sparked up in May, when the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho reported allegations that Kotomitsuki – one of the country’s top wrestlers – was being blackmailed for a debt he had accumulated from gambling on professional baseball games.

Gambling is illegal in Japan, except for in the case of a few government-sanctioned activities such as the soccer lottery, horse racing and motorboat racing. Gambling on professional sports like baseball that require bookmakers, moreover, is often suspected of being tied to organized crime.

Kotomitsuki initially denied his involvement. In an ensuing internal probe by the Japan Sumo Association conducted between June 11 to June 14, however, 65 wresters and staff members admitted to some form of gambling, ranging from mahjong to card games. Twenty nine of them, including Kotomitsuki, ultimately admitted to betting on baseball games.

Sumo Association Chairman Musashigawa convened an emergency meeting on Monday between officials from the association. Musashigawa said the organization will continue to make plans for the upcoming Nagoya tournament, but will also launch a formal external investigation of the 65 in order to determine the exact nature of their involvement in illegal gambling.

“I never imagined so many wrestlers would be involved,” said Musashigawa, the former yokozuna grand champion, at the start of the Monday meeting. He apologized for the fact that his wrestlers had tarnished the image of the sport.

Assault, drugs mar sport's reputation
The chairman said the association will decide whether or not to hold the Nagoya tournament after the results from the investigation come in.

Although Sumo wrestling remains a revered sport in Japan, its popularity has diminished in recent years not only because of the rise of sports like soccer and baseball, but also because of what has seemed like a never-ending series of scandals.

In 2007, a 17-year-old sumo apprentice died after three other wrestlers were instructed by their stable master to hit him with baseball bats. The stable master denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the apprentice had died of a heart attack. All four were eventually found guilty of manslaugher.

A year later, in 2008, several top wrestlers from Russia were expelled from the Japan Sumo Association for possession of marijuana, forcing the resignation of the then-Sumo Chairman Kitanoumi.

And this year, one of the most successful yozokuna champions, Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu, was forced to resign after he allegedly assaulted a man outside a nightclub in Tokyo.

The most recent gambling scandal has prompted one major sponsor to pull its prize money out of the Nagoya tournament. In addition, NHK– the public broadcaster that televises professional sumo matches – is considering whether it should continue with its broadcast next month, according to local media reports.

“In its long history and tradition, Sumo has never been exposed to such a crisis,” said Sports and Education Minister Tatsuo Kawabata said at the start of the Japan Sumo Association’s probe last week. “The sport is on the brink of a fresh start, but only if it handles the situation firmly.”