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No more sumo until bout-fixing rooted out

Penalties meted out to many sumo wrestlers involved in bout-fixing must be a catalyst for eliminating this unseemly practice from the sumo world.

The Japan Sumo Association announced Friday (April 1) that it had punished 23 wrestlers and sumo elders who had rigged bouts.

The penalties, including “a recommendation to voluntarily retire” and two-year suspensions from sumo tournaments, were imposed on 21 active wrestlers and two oyakata elders, who allegedly fixed bouts during their competitive careers. No wrestlers in the three ranks below yokozuna were among the 23 slapped with disciplinary action.

The punishments are harsh and effectively boot the offenders from the sumo arena. Oyakata of stables to which the tainted wrestlers belong also have been punished for failing to properly manage their proteges. The JSA this time has taken an uncompromising line on bout-rigging.

However, we have doubts about the accuracy and exhaustiveness of the JSA investigation.

A special investigation panel comprising lawyers and other experts questioned wrestlers and elders on the matter, but the only three wrestlers who “confessed” to the panel had already admitted involvement in throwing bouts just after the scandal surfaced in February.

The panel failed to unearth many nuggets of hard evidence other than text messages from several wrestlers’ mobile phones implying bout winners had been prearranged.

As a result, the investigation panel had no option but to weigh the three wrestlers’ testimonies against bout results that appeared dubious as they tried to determine whether they had been fixed. The punishments will be hard to swallow for wrestlers who have been penalized despite denying any role in the scandal.

The JSA says it will continue investigating the problem. But as long as the panel has no binding power, it will be extremely difficult to get to the bottom of bout-fixing in sumo.

JSA Chairman Hanaregoma has said previously, “Until we drive out every cause of (bout-fixing) irregularities, we won’t be able to let wrestlers publicly perform in a ring.”

The Osaka tournament in March was canceled as sumo reeled from the scandal. Given the current situation, under which the JSA has fallen short of “driving out all causes” of match-rigging and related irregularities, it will be all but impossible to hold the upcoming summer grand sumo tournament scheduled for May.

Sumo cannot exist without support from its fans. Bearing this in mind, the JSA should use the penalties handed out this time as a starting point for strengthening its efforts to prevent match-fixing.

The revelations of bout-fixing surfaced in February, but rumors that bouts had been decided in advance had been rife for years. The JSA had continually denied these suspicions, and did not even conduct a fact-finding study on the matter.

Above all else, the JSA should stop turning a blind eye to unpleasant realities. It should compile a package of match-fixing prevention measures that will convince sumo fans the association is serious about eliminating the bout-fixing scourge before it holds another tournament.

Many people are keenly looking forward to seeing sumo tournaments resume. Live sumo broadcasts would also surely cheer and encourage victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The JSA has an obligation to ensure sumo fans can watch hotly contested, genuine bouts as soon as possible.

(The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 3)
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