Sumo has faced a spate of bad publicity in recent years and calls for reform Photo: AFP/File

Sumo wrestler's death after heavy fall sparks criticism of medical care


A Japanese sumo wrestler has died a month after landing on his head during a bout and lying unattended for several minutes, raising fresh concerns about the care of fighters.

Video of 28-year-old Hibikiryu lying prone for several minutes before receiving any medical help prompted widespread criticism and questions about why doctors were not present ringside.

The lower-tier wrestler, whose real name was Mitsuki Amano, had reportedly been in hospital since the March 26 incident. He died of acute respiratory failure on Wednesday, the Japan Sumo Association said in a statement.

"May his soul rest in peace, and we express our heartfelt gratitude" to him, the statement said.

Doctors at sumo bouts do not sit ringside and it is customary to wait for wrestlers to get up by themselves after being thrown or falling.

Hibikiryu was also turned over by officials, something experts pointed out should only have been done by trained medics, given the risk of a spinal injury.

The sumo association said "a causal link between the wrestler's death and his injury is not clear at this point".

"As to how to improve emergency medical systems, we will announce something when we formally decide it," a spokeswoman told AFP.

Several Japanese sports dailies said the sumo association was discussing changes including stationing doctors ringside, as is the case in professional boxing.

There have not been previous reports of wrestlers dying after injuries sustained in fights, but the sport's dangers and medical standards have been in the spotlight.

A controversy erupted during the new year tournament in January when a wrestler who had suffered a concussion was told to return to the ring, the Sports Nippon daily reported.

"The shock of the tachiai (initial charge) is said to be more than a tonne. The thrill and appeal of sumo are fraught with danger," a journalist for the paper wrote in an analysis.

He said one former top wrestler had described the sport as "like experiencing car accidents every day".

A series of hazing scandals, including revelations of beatings and other abuse, has also raised questions about sumo's treatment of its fighters.

Hibikiryu's death prompted widespread criticism of the slow medical response in the deeply traditional sport.

"This is what I feared," tweeted Mikito Chinen, a doctor and novelist. "I couldn't believe my eyes as the wrestler, who obviously had a high chance of a spinal injury... was left untreated for several minutes while they prioritized announcing who had won."

Hideo Ito, an acupuncturist and massage therapist who has been treating sumo wrestlers for two decades, said Hibikiryu may have damaged his spine when he fell.

"He was a wonderful wrestler who always had a kind smile and was always thoughtful of others," Ito told AFP, calling for doctors to be on standby at each bout.

The risk of serious head injuries has become an issue in several sports in recent years, including American football, rugby and football.

Sumo's spate of bad publicity in recent years has prompted calls for reform, including over rules on admitting women into the ring.

In 2018, the Japan Sumo Association was forced to apologize after women who rushed to the aid of an official who had collapsed in a ring were repeatedly told to leave.

Sumo's dirt rings, known as dohyo, are viewed as sacred in the Japanese Shinto faith and women -- considered to be ritually unclean -- are not allowed to enter for fear of desecrating the hallowed soil.

© 2021 AFP

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The sumo association said "a causal link between the wrestler's death and his injury is not clear at this point".

This may be true, but the declaration is tasteless and show a complete disregard of the responsibilities the association needs to shoulder.

This is a risky sport so not having anybody responsible of treating injuries ready to do it at any time is irresponsible, there is no need to add more danger from failures to treat opportunely the patients.

One thing that calls for attention is that the closest thing to a health care professional they could find to make a declaration was an acupuncturist. If a practice that has been so completely debunked by science is the only thing they have available for the people that are injured maybe not having anybody would even be an improvement.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Sorry to say but sports in Japan is so unprofessional when it comes to the physical well being of athletes. There are almost no protocols in place. It’s because they have this old school tough it out attitude.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

"Sorry to say but sports in Japan is so unprofessional when it comes to the physical well being of athletes"

Yeah right and the west is any better? Maybe you should read:

Concussions in American football

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Not to worry, guys. The JSA will conduct an internal investigation.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It was pure and simple criminal neglect . As if treating an injured wrestler would take away anything from his dignity.

athletes in many sports accept, and should do, inherent risks in performing their sports but that does not excuse for increasing the risks and damage by those supposed to take care of them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@simplefacts, I don’t know about NFL, I’m a hockey fan and I know the NHL has a strict concussion protocol in place. Also there are doctors fully equipped at every game and you don’t see players carried off the ice piggyback like you do here in Japan. It makes Japan look like the gong show it is.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I know they have there traditions not that raised dohyo can't be good for injuries let alone all the Geri's sitting around it. As for the NFL you've got to laugh when they do a great play they bash their heads together. Geniuses.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

What about soccer? it’s been proven that heading the ball can cause long term brain damage. Not too bright.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

women -- considered to be ritually unclean --

Only speculation. Nobody knows why women were originally not allowed in ancient times.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Soooo, based on that speculation, why are they not allowed in now? Maybe because women talk too much?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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