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Sumo shows its hypocrisy

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By CB Liddell

In their 2005 book "Freakonomics," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner found that sumo was fixed. The proof was in the fact that wrestlers going into the final day of a tournament with a 7-7 record, and therefore needing to win their final bout to maintain their rank, were victorious 80% of the time against wrestlers who were already safe with 8-6 records.

Levitt and Dubner also found that the “winning” wrestler also tended to repay the favor at the next tournament, losing 60% of the matches against the same opponent. Although not hard evidence, this kind of statistical analysis can often be consistent enough to point an accusing finger at a sport that has come under an increasingly negative spotlight in recent months.

The latest blow to the tattered image of sumo comes from the recent expulsions of three foreign-born sumo wrestlers for marijuana use. While such a small sample may be statistically irrelevant in a "Freakonomics" sense, it nevertheless points to some of the chronic double standards, dishonesty and disregard for athlete health that has come to characterize this sport.

Since drug testing was finally introduced this year — after promises to bring it in 2003 were reneged on — only these three rikishi have been banned in a sport where use of harmful substances is suspected to be widespread. The fact that all three just happen to be foreigners is surely not coincidental.

Last year sumo faced its worst scandal in recent memory when a young trainee was battered to death in an apparent act of hazing. But while the circumstances of this case were tragic and newsworthy, the truth is that sumo has been causing a lot of low-key death and physical destruction for much longer. Just look at the numerous examples of retired wrestlers in poor health. Recently, the former golden boy of sumo, 36-year-old Takanohana, made an appearance on TV. I hadn’t seen him since his yokozuna glory days, and was shocked to notice what he has become — his movements were stiff and unnatural, and his voice sounded weak and reedy.

Not only is the life expectancy of sumo wrestlers 10 years less than the average population, they also suffer higher incidences of kidney and liver problems. Wrestlers are also subject to hormonal imbalances, signaled by serious weight problems and voice changes. While much of this may be the result of the unusual diet and harsh training, many of the same symptoms are also present in steroid abusers.

This brings us back to the reason that drug testing was finally introduced this year. Back in 2003, the head of the Japan Sumo Association proposed that all wrestlers be screened for drugs during their medical check-ups in February and October. The issue came up because politicians had begun criticizing the sport’s growing dependency on steroids, which led to vastly increased weights and injuries.

One of the driving forces for increased steroid use may have been the need for Japanese wrestlers to “bulk up” to face waves of tough competition from abroad, first from Hawaii, then Mongolia and now Eastern Europe. How ironic, then, that when drug screening was introduced, the tests were not aimed at steroid users but instead at marijuana smokers. Marijuana is a comparatively mild and harmless drug, especially in light of the serious long-term health problems faced by most sumo wrestlers.

If the Japan Sumo Association had been serious about eradicating drug use, it would have started testing for steroids first. But this would have ruffled the feathers of the big sumo stables and, depending on how widespread the problem, brought chaos to the sport. Much better, therefore, to make an example of a few foreigners while turning a blind eye to the real trouble.

The scapegoating of the three Russian wrestlers clearly stems from the sport’s dominant culture, which combines elements of xenophobia with religious chauvinism. Not only is sumo tied up with the remnants of the imperialistic Shinto cult that was defeated in the war, it also promotes insulting attitudes to women, whom it excludes from the dohyo as “spiritually unclean.” In short, the sumo world is a closed cabalistic entity, hidebound with arcane traditions, and highly suspicious of change, of foreigners or any kind of transparency. That’s the reason why this otherwise exciting sport continues its slow and steady decline.

If sumo is to have a real future, it must break with the past and shed the arcane culture that once nourished it but now stifles it. An international ruling body should be established, with standards, rules and procedures that meet global standards. Judo and karate have done this; why not sumo?

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

25 Comments
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i totally agree that sumo is past its prime. something has to be done to make the sport, especially the training, safe for young men. as to barring women - thats just stupid. the known murder of the young lad did not get as much press time and penalties as the foreign rikishi and their toking. if that aint xeonophobic. i do think murder, and that is what is was, is way worse than puffing on some maryjane. sumo is run by people who have never been in the real world. let`s get some fresh, educated and socially adept people on the board. and by the way, chibaman - "accusations that are likely true" a freudian slip?

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No, I know what I wrote when I wrote it. Yes, many wrestlers have used steroids, but three dope smoking Russians were the ones to be given the boot. Japan is racist and we're talking about its traditional sport. Japan is for the Japanese, and foreigners who choose to come here are under no obligation to meddle with it, just pack up and go home and fix the problems back there if you really want to impose yourself.

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If sumo is to have a real future, it must break with the past and shed the arcane culture that once nourished it but now stifles it.

According to you pal. Listen to your tough talk. People get a lot tougher in the soft society that is Japan.

An international ruling body should be established, with standards, rules and procedures that meet global standards

Global standards? Do you mean Western standards (where the sport is non-existent), rules and procedures?

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Sumo shows its hypocrisy

Sorry where is the hypocrisy? Where is the link between throwing matches, a hazing-related death, dope smoking wrestlers, the long term effects of sumo on a wrestler's body? Does the writer want sumo to continue or not? In the end this article is little more than a rant about discrimination in Japan. But I don't blame him. The unpleasant aspects of Japan never appear in the travel brochures. I'd say Welcome to Japan, but that chip on his shoulder takes a couple of years to develop.

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Sumo did have good days. Chiyonofuji vs. Kitanomi was great theatre. Chiyo was handsome and built like Samson, Kitanomi the big fat bully, looking something like Jackie Gleason in his prime. But after that, we get the Konishiki's ballooning to 273 Kg? It was sick. He fought best at 205 kg. and after that just went down hill....on one knee. After that? Akebono, who to me was never anything but just bigger than the rest, and faster than Konishiki till he too balloned past 230 kg. Then Musashimaru, another big Hawaiian, and maybe the most sumo like of the three of them. Takanohana reached his peak during the "Hawaiin invasion", and now its all Mongol champions, with not a single Japanese Yokozuna in sight. Do you think there will EVER be another Japanese sumo champion? I think as the readers say here, for the survival of sumo itself, we should get it more on an international scale, including judges, including which one might be a women! But we are all dreaming, because the SUMO kyokai is in charge of their troops and kabu (stock) and won't give up the reins. How about establishing a separate sumo league, like the AFL did to the NFL and within 3-5 years being able to compete with the JSO (Japan Sumo Organization)? Now that would be interesting.

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The scapegoating of the three Russian wrestlers clearly stems from the sport’s dominant culture, which combines elements of xenophobia with religious chauvinism. Not only is sumo tied up with the remnants of the imperialistic Shinto cult that was defeated in the war, it also promotes insulting attitudes to women, whom it excludes from the dohyo as “spiritually unclean.” In short, the sumo world is a closed cabalistic entity, hidebound with arcane traditions, and highly suspicious of change, of foreigners or any kind of transparency. That’s the reason why this otherwise exciting sport continues its slow and steady decline. If sumo is to have a real future, it must break with the past and shed the arcane culture that once nourished it but now stifles it. An international ruling body should be established, with standards, rules and procedures that meet global standards. Judo and karate have done this; why not sumo?

AMEN! FINALLY! Someone who knows what they are talking about and not afraid to report it! The trouble with the Japanese is, they are stupid enough to think and believe, that no one will notice!! The three expelled Russians should sue Japan and the Sumo Federation for racism (made illegal in Japan in 2002), and request compensation befitting of champion sumo wrestlers, as if they had reached the highest stage of Yokozuna for the remainder of their Sumo life.

Freakonomics is a great book by the way...I read it last year and can't wait for their next book!

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Chibaman - read the story, read the book, the link is in the FACT that crime is rampant in the sumo industry. As for worldwide standards - Sumo is performed in over 27 countries by native inhabitants. Sure, it's not a Worldwide championship, but neither is the Superbowl, yet there are professional teams in many countries around the world. The 'World Series' of baseball was formerly for just US teams - and even today, is still governed by US only rules (Next you'll try to tell me that baseball was invented in America, and you'd be WRONG!).

In the end this article is little more than a rant about discrimination in Japan

Yeah, and for very good reason - because discrimination in Japan EXISTS! If three Russian sumo guys being expelled from the country is not enough evidence for ya, (especially when several of their Japanese comrades spoke up about using marijuana themselves and they were told to be quiet), then take a look at the onsens in Hokkaido that don't allow foreigners; or try walking into some hostess bar where for them at least, the world hasn't changed in fifty years, and see how quickly you're tossed out!

If you think Japan is all roses and this story is rubbish, then there is no hope for you 'pal'.

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You know what, I don't think you can read. Where did I say discrimination doesn't exist? Put on your glasses and look at my first post in this thread again.

So what are you gonna do about it? If you don't like the hand you or Roho or Wakanoho have been dealt, pack it up and go home.

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Global standards? Do you mean Western standards (where the sport is non-existent), rules and procedures?

How about "global" standards where blatant racism, cheating, and shameless dishonesty are frowned upon?

I get that you're concerned about cultural insensitivity, but this is a ridiculous time to play that card.

If you don't like the hand you or Roho or Wakanoho have been dealt, pack it up and go home.

Yes, run away. Good plan.

If the posts here irritate you, stop coming here. Don't voice your opinion, just pack it up and go home.

It's nice that you think you're standing for something, but all context aside, your arguments are trainwrecks of hilariously poor logic. I happen to think you're wrong, but if you ARE right, you have a responsibility to present your side with more reason than you have. Otherwise, you're just going to be mocked, right or wrong.

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TPOJ, what now you're concerned for the Russians plight? "I don't really have much sympathy for him...smoking weed in JAPAN? Not the sharpest tool in the shed" is what you said a few weeks back. So which carries more weight in your book? Smoking an illegal drug in Japan or your foreigner sensitivities?

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1) Leaders dont want to make Sumo a "global" sport. 2) You dont need to make strict controls on steroids to sell your sport to the world. Look at the American sports (NFL, MBL, NBA) with players packed with steroids. That is the reason why forming a competitive team to compete internationally is so hard for the US. 3) Ths Sumo wrestlers knew they couldn't smoke marihuana. 4) Feakonomics has very controversial results. Players with a 7-7 record are certainly more motivated and concentrated than those ones whose fates are already decided. Excellent read, anyway. 5) As Japan is the only place where you can practice sumo professionally, you must attain strictly to its rules. If Italy, for example, prohibits football players to have sex, most of the players would go to England, Spain or wherever. Here you have no choice.

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In short, the sumo world is a closed cabalistic entity, hidebound with arcane traditions, and highly suspicious of change, of foreigners or any kind of transparency. That's the reason why this otherwise exciting sport continues its slow and steady decline.

Absolute nonsense. Any noteable decline is because of the Mongolians complete domination in most recent years and other foreigners in years before that, in Japan's national sport. The crowds are still sell-outs particularly on the weekends and national holidays however, and sumo still leads the sports news when a tournament is on. If the writer is referring to younger people not picking it up, which I don't think he is but rather endulging in a thinly veiled rant about discrimination, well neither are they picking up the shamisen, the koto and they are leaving many other traditional interests behind as they pursue socccer and baseball and other things from abroad, so at least be happy with this last part and perhaps question why you stay in Japan while you're at it.

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TPOJ, what now you're concerned for the Russians plight? "I don't really have much sympathy for him...smoking weed in JAPAN? Not the sharpest tool in the shed" is what you said a few weeks back.

Didn't read the rest of the post you quoted, did you?

So which carries more weight in your book? Smoking an illegal drug in Japan or your foreigner sensitivities?

Wow. A strawman AND a false dichotomy in one fell swoop.

You are aware we're talking about overarching principals, and not just one isolated situation, right? Both sides are at fault. Both need to pull their respective heads out.

Don't come here and bemoan that it's different then continue to stay.

Says the cranky guy who posts repeatedly.

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Marijuana is a comparatively mild and harmless drug

Oh really? Ask Bob Marley how harmless it is.

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In short, the sumo world is a closed cabalistic entity, hidebound with arcane traditions, and highly suspicious of change, of foreigners or any kind of transparency. That’s the reason why this otherwise exciting sport continues its slow and steady decline.

Good description of not only sumo but also Japan too.

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To quote myself from a prvious thread..."No suprises here. This is Japan after all."

'Nough said.

S

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I've been a lot less interested in sumo recently. It's a dirty sport and needs to be cleaned up.

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The best article written on JT.

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My gut feeling is that "where there's smoke, there's fire".. and not jsut from Wakanoho's bong. The Russians were scapegoated out of pure, old fashioned xenophobia, Japanese-style. And it got a a little ridiculous watching all of those Sumo-ka allowing themselves to be pushed out of the ring during the Natsu-basho, when they spent all of 2006-2007 easily avoiding Kotooshu's one and only move. That said, my gut feeling is just as valid as the well-marketed "Freakanomics" conclusion. We're saying teh same thing: There's corruption because we THINK there is.

The proof was in the fact that wrestlers going into the final day of a tournament with a 7-7 record, and therefore needing to win their final bout to maintain their rank, were victorious 80% of the time against wrestlers who were already safe with 8-6 records.

That's not "proof", it's merely suspicious.

Levitt and Dubner also found that the “winning” wrestler also tended to repay the favor at the next tournament, losing 60% of the matches against the same opponent.

That's not "quid pro quo". You couldn't get a prosecutor to even pay attention to identical situations in other industries.

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Yeah ! It's a smoke-screen ( no pun intended ).

Surely, the idea of any drug testing is to stop the abuse of "performance enhancing" substances, such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormones - cheating.

I can't imagine any sport in which you would consider marijuana a "performance enhancing" drug. It would actually have the opposite effect in most cases ; all you'd want to do is eat doritos and watch the discovery channel instead of competing !

It's possible to get away with this kind of scare-mongering in Japan because there's no real classification system for illegal substances, and the majority of the population don't know anything about drugs apart from the puerile information they get from their media.

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Actually MJ can enhance yopur performance as it relaxes you and that can be an advantage in many sports.

As a MA we always try to be as calm as possible and not let the adrenalin kick in as the rush has bad effects too.

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You're right TheNewZen. According to World Anti-Doping Agency, Cannabinoids (e.g. hashish, marijuana) are prohibited.

http://www.wada-ama.org/rtecontent/document/2008_List_En.pdf

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if they were playing sumo while high on mary jane, they should get a medal not expulsion. Seriously though, how long can Japan suspend my brain thinking that only 3 sumo wrestlers, all Russian, are "it" and we can all get back to full throttle steroid sumo? This is nuts. This also points to a lack of understanding on youth and shows that having no policy and just off the cuff decisions make the JSA exceedingly amateurish. I've been a fan of sumo for years but this is it for me. JSA has to clean up it's act or watch itself implode. The international interest in sumo? It's gone for me.

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the majority of the population don't know anything about drugs apart from the puerile information they get from their media.

Yeah, it goes in line with deficiencies in biology and the amazing longer bowel systems of Japanese (hilarious). Hearing that the JSA basically is shortening the lifespans of their top wrestlers (Takanohana) is crimial. The steriod use will finish a lot of them off.

If they were int'l, sick rikshi could sue JSA (based on local laws not Japan's) that JSA did not do their best to prevent illness to them also, which is why they will never be an int'l professional organization.

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whoops, sp criminal above...

anyway, any real athelete retired looks maybe not as fit but never ever as wasted away as the former Takanohana. JSA will be and should be sued for providing a steriod haven. Forget the Russians for a minute. Why are Japanese doing this to themselves?

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