Sumo rocked by match-fixing

2011-02-06 14:25

Tokyo - Japan's sumo authority called off its spring tournament Sunday over a match-fixing scandal, in the first such cancellation in over half a century as the ancient and tainted sport reached a new low.

The board of the Japan Sumo Association decided to scrap the March tournament in an emergency session as it investigates the extent of corruption in the sport, after three fighters confessed that bouts had been fixed in advance.

In a tearful press conference, association chairman Hanaregoma apologised for the debacle, saying he could not find adequate words to express his regret.

"Honestly, what I am about to say marks the darkest ever chapter in the long history of sumo," he said, his voice shaking and tears welling up in his eyes.

"The Japan Sumo Association has decided to cancel the spring tournament scheduled for March," he said, adding that more time was needed to investigate the bout-fixing scandal and to explain to the public what had happened.

"Sincerely... I sincerely apologise," Hanaregoma said, as he stood up before cameras and bowed deeply at the start of a nationally televised press conference.

It is the first tournament cancellation since 1946, when the ritualistic sport's summer event was called off because of delays to the renovation of a sumo facility damaged during World War II, Hanaregoma said.

Tournaments cannot be held until he has rid the sport of corruption and sumo regains support of its fans, he added.

In the latest scandal, at least three active sumo fighters have admitted fixing bouts after incriminating text messages were widely leaked to the press.

Eleven more wrestlers also came under suspicion, but have denied any involvement.

Match-rigging claims have long dogged sumo, which has its roots in Japan's native Shinto religion and dates back some 1,500 years -- but this is the first time wrestlers still active in the sumo world have confessed.

The sport's unique pay scale might have pushed wrestlers, particularly in lower rankings, to fix bouts to keep or to upgrade their status.

Wrestlers start receiving monthly salary of about one million yen ($12,000) along with benefits once they reach the rank of "juryo".

The money goes up as they improve their status, but those below that position receive no regular payment, giving "juryo" wrestlers an incentive to conspire among themselves to avoid losing their ranking, local media said.

Wrestlers who could guarantee their ranking with early victories in a tournament might sell later bouts to others, expecting to buy wins themselves when they go through tougher events.

The sumo authority had long denied bout-fixing and previously taken legal action against journalists and others who reported such cases.

Hanaregoma himself avoided the term "fixed bouts", instead calling them "spiritless bouts."

Japan's education minister, who supervises the national sport, on Thursday condemned the fixing as an "act of betrayal".

The fixing scandal came to light last week after a newspaper revealed a police investigation into illegal gambling on baseball games, run by gangsters with bets placed by sumo wrestlers.

Police confiscated mobile phones from wrestlers in the course of that probe, and found messages detailing arrangements for bout-fixing, which is not a crime but prompted fury among sumo fans.

The sport's cherished image of probity has collapsed following revelations of drug use, extortion linked to underworld gangs and the 2007 death of a trainee who had been bullied and subjected to violent initiation rites.

The cancellation of the tournament could mean the loss of 1.3 billion yen ($15.8 million) in revenues for the cash-rich association, including 720 million yen in lost ticket sales, the Sports Nippon newspaper said.

This financial loss could grow if individual ticketing agents demand compensation.

But the loss of public confidence could deal incalculable damage to sumo, with fans and the media voicing disgust and anger over the revelations.

Sumo is Japan's national sport and stands along with baseball as the most popular spectator sport in Japan.

Bout results are closely followed by the public, with national broadcaster NHK normally airing live coverage of 15-day tournaments, held six times a year, with each day's coverage lasting roughly three hours.

Sumo wrestlers are generally respected, with top wrestlers expected to act as role models for the public.

But the sport's fan base has declined due in part to recent scandals and misconduct by wrestlers.