National sport becomes national disgrace as sumo grapples with gambling scandal

By Eric Talmadge, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Sumo wrestling grapples with gambling scandal

TOKYO — The venerable sport of sumo wrestling — already reeling from a series of drug and bad-conduct scandals — announced Monday it may suspend dozens of top wrestlers and coaches for allegedly betting tens of thousands of dollars on baseball games.

If the suspensions go through, about one-third of the sport’s top wrestlers would have to sit out the next tournament, one of only six held each year.

The Japan Sumo Association is considering suspending or expelling 14 wrestlers and 13 coaches for involvement in the gambling ring, which allegedly involved gangster middlemen and has deeply tarnished the image of Japan’s ancient national sport.

The association said it would, however, hold its next tournament as planned from July 11, although sponsors have threatened to pull out.

“We will accept our punishment,” Otake, a leading coach who has admitting to gambling for several years, said Monday in a tearful interview with public broadcaster NHK. “Please give us another chance.”

Otake acknowledged running up betting debts of more than $50,000. The scandal has led to one arrest and could spread further.

Last month, Tokyo police arrested former sumo wrestler Mitsutomo Furuichi, 38, on suspicion of extorting $38,800 in hush money from wrestler Kotomitsuki — an Otake protege who holds the sport’s second-highest rank — to cover up his baseball gambling habit.

An internal survey by the Japan Sumo Association last month found at least 65 of its members had been involved in illegal gambling.

Even without further charges, gambling is seen as a breach of discipline and not in keeping with stringent ethical standards sumo wrestlers are expected to observe.

It was not immediately clear if the association’s chairman, former wrestler Musashigawa, would step down. Sumo association officials had no immediate comment other than to confirm the tournament would go ahead and punishment for those involved was being considered.

The association’s decision came after an independent panel recommended the next tournament be canceled unless serious action was taken.

That would be unprecedented and costly.

Sumo tournaments are televised live, and canceling the 15-day event would be a major blow to the sport. But a member of the oversight panel said sumo needs to clear its name.

“There will be no tomorrow for sumo unless they take these kind of measures,” said Shigeru Ito, the head of the panel.

Though still widely popular, sumo’s fan base has dwindled in recent years, partly because of the scandals but also because of the lack of topflight Japanese wrestlers to cheer for. The sport’s reigning grand champion — who is not implicated — is Mongolian, and most of the best wrestlers are also foreigners.

Scandals in sumo are especially sensitive because wrestlers, particularly those in the elite top division, are expected by the fans to live by higher standards and adhere to a rigid set of rules.

Because of the sport’s origins as religious ritual centuries ago, the ring is considered to be sacred ground, and wrestlers must purify themselves before climbing into it. Most wrestlers are required to live in communal training stables where all aspects of their daily lives are dictated by strict tradition.

But sumo’s image has taken a beating in recent months.

Top wrestler Asashoryu of Mongolia recently quit in disgrace after media reports that he got in a drunken altercation. The sport has also been involved in criminal investigations into the death of a wrestler who was brutally hazed and into the use of marijuana by top-division wrestlers.

In May, two sumo coaches who provided ringside seats to members of a notorious crime syndicate were demoted.

“Unless they take action like the ones we have recommended they won’t be able to win back the public’s trust,” oversight panel member Takayasu Okushima said in a news conference Sunday night. “This is the result of all the scandals they haven’t dealt with in the past.”

The panel recommended that Otake be expelled permanently. He has offered to resign.

The association said it would decide by July 4 whether to carry out the suspensions or other punishments.

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