Sumo wrestlers knocked down by scandals

Sumo wrestling is a hallmark of Japanese tradition, but it's faltering under allegations of bribery, gambling, and bullying, among others.

Kyodo News/AP
Reporters throng sumo wrestler Yamamotoyama after he was questioned by sumo elders concerning allegations.

Humility and sportsmanship. To these qualities traditionally associated with the men who do battle in Japan’s sumo rings, some would add greed and deception.

The country’s national sport is an enthralling combination of grappling and Shinto ritual. But it has been floored by allegations that more than a dozen wrestlers arranged to throw bouts in return for thousands of dollars. That those claims came to light in the midst of an investigation into illegal gambling among wrestlers on professional baseball matches underlines the size of the moral vacuum into which many fear sumo has been drawn.

Allegations of match-fixing are nothing new, and the secondary motivation, after money, appears to be a fraternal desire to help struggling wrestlers stay in the highest two ranks, where salaries dwarf those in the sport’s lower reaches. This time, though, sumo has too many blemishes against its name to convincingly fight back. They include gambling, bullying, ties to organized crime, and drug use. The March sumo tournament has been canceled.

As politicians and editorial writers join to condemn this latest betrayal, sumo’s guardians have vowed to bring about a renaissance.

But for the millions of fans who expected better from the exponents of a sport whose roots stretch back 1,500 years, the soul-searching may have come too late.

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