Sumo star's bribery claims further tarnish sport's image

 

JAPAN:JAPAN'S SUMO world, already reeling from drug and hazing scandals, has been rocked by fresh allegations that its wrestlers are being paid to dump fights.

Russian fighter Wakanoho, who was sacked last month after being caught in possession of cannabis, stunned TV viewers yesterday when he called the centuries-old tradition "dirty" in a press conference aired nationwide.

"I was forced to accept money and put in unfair bouts," said the wrestler, whose real name is Gagloev Soslan Aleksandrovich. "I want to return to make the sumo world clean again."

The allegation is the latest in a series to hit the Japan Sumo Association, which is already fighting claims that its top rikishi (wrestler), Mongolian-born Asashoryu, rigged fights for $6,500 (€4,555) a pop.

Asashoryu is due in court with several other fighters on Friday to defend himself against the claims, first aired in a tabloid weekly, that have further muddied the sports tarnished image.

In sumo's worst controversy in recent memory, apprentice Takashi Saito (17) was beaten to death by three wrestlers last year in an apparent hazing ordered by his stable master to "toughen him up". Saito's body was covered in bruises and cuts administered with metal baseball bats and beer bottles following training sessions.

His family charged that the police were slow to investigate the cause of his death.

Earlier this month, Russian-born siblings Roh­ and Hakurozan became only the second and third rikishi - after Wakanoho - to be banned from the sumo ring for life after sumo association drug tests found they had smoked cannabis.

The resulting furore forced the association's chairman Kitanoumi out of his job and led to calls for tougher control over foreign wrestlers, who have been criticised for failing to understand the sport's austere traditions.

Although limited in numbers by association regulations, foreigners dominate the top divisions of the sport: despite an increasingly erratic career, Asashoryu is its top draw and fellow Mongolian-born grand champion Hakuho celebrated his eighth career title at the Autumn Grand Sumo this week.

Some commentators have suggested the banning of three foreign wrestlers for drug-taking, in a sport many allege is rife with steroid abuse, is not coincidental.

Wakanoho's allegations threaten to further deepen the rift between traditionalists who view the influx of foreigners with distrust and those who think the sport suffers from worse problems, including xenophobia.

He said his fellow wrestlers and stable masters also smoked marijuana but went unpunished, a claim that inevitably be taken by some to mean he is being singled out because he is not Japanese.

He is threatening to throw more salt on sumo's wounds by airing these claims in court.

"I also want to tell all other evil things that I know," he said, adding: "My stable master and others knew [about bout-fixing] but nobody stepped in because they had been also playing unfair matches themselves."

The 20-year-old, who was rising rapidly through the ranks before being thrown out, told police that he smoked pot in the toilet of a disco after buying two bags of marijuana and a pipe.