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