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Sumo struggles to win back fans after scandal

By Jim Armstrong

AP Sports Writer

LAST UPDATED: 5:09 a.m. HST, Jul 13, 2011

TOKYO >> The sport of sumo has some way to go to win back the Japanese public’s trust and affection if the attendance at this week’s return tournament is any indication.

Back after a six-month hiatus due to a match-fixing scandal, Japan’s ancient sport is looking to restore its tarnished image but large swaths of empty seats at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament this week indicate the sport has much work to do.

Only about 3,700 fans showed up Monday at Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium on the second day of competition, about half of what the stadium holds. The crowds weren’t much better on Tuesday.

“Sumo was rotten to the core,” said office worker Tadahito Matsumoto, who said he’ll not attend the ongoing tourney. “It’s going to take more than a slap on the wrist to clean it up. You need to look at the people who run the sport.”

The Nagoya event is the first official tournament since January. Sumo shut its doors in March to conduct an internal investigation after it was revealed that as many as 25 wrestlers and coaches were involved in throwing matches.

The alleged bout-fixing came to light when police were examining text messages on cell phones confiscated after wrestlers used their phones to place bets on professional baseball games.

For the Nagoya tournament, wrestlers and coaches have been prohibited from bringing their mobile phones with them to dressing rooms in an effort to stamp out match fixing, as cell phones were found to have been commonly used to rig matches and place bets.

The wrestlers and coaches who were found to be fixing matches were expelled from the sport and two tournaments were called off completely — the first such cancellations in 65 years — as sumo grappled with what many considered the worst scandal in its history.

On the first day of the Nagoya tournament, Japan Sumo Associated chairman Hanaregoma bowed deeply and apologized to fans, promising that the sport would make every effort to win back public trust.

But the apology rang hollow to many; a lot like the one Hanaregoma made over the previous scandal.

“The sport has not been cleaned up at all,” said sumo columnist Mark Buckton. “They have just weathered the storm. As long as the current bosses are in place sumo is not going to be cleaned up.”

The scandal became a national embarrassment for Japan because sumo is regarded as a symbol of Japanese culture, and not merely a sport. Unlike other sports, the sumo association has special status that affords it tax benefits, and its wrestlers appear in public clad in traditional robes and wear their hair in top-knots.

Still, some were surprised by the degree of outrage over the betting scandal.

“We’ve all known this has been going on for a long time,” said sports commentator Masayuki Tamaki. “I’m not so worried about bout-fixing. What I want to see is interesting sumo.”

One factor taking away interest among local fans is that local Japanese wrestlers have largely been eclipsed by foreign competitors. Sumo has not had a Japanese grand champion since Takanohana retired in 2003. Mongolians Asashoryu and Hakuho are the only wrestlers to reach that rank since.

That only added to the challenge sumo faces to retain relevancy in Japan’s crowded sports scene where other sports like baseball and football dominate.

“I don’t think they’ve done enough, but hopefully they got rid of all the guys who fixed matches,” said Buckton. 

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