‘Sumo needs to break gangster ties’

2010-07-27 12:10

Veteran sumo commentator Kunihiro Sugiyama says Japan’s ancient sport needs to break all ties with organised crime to win back the confidence of fans.

Sugiyama, one of sumo’s most distinguished announcers, has spent the last 57 years covering Japan’s ancient sport for national broadcaster NHK.

“It’s clear people want all ties to the underworld completely severed,” Sugiyama said today at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Sumo’s latest scandal involves dozens of top wrestlers and coaches who allegedly wagered tens of thousands of dollars on professional baseball games, with gangsters acting as go-betweens.

Many sumo watchers say the latest scandal merely underscores the close relationship sumo has had with organised crime for decades.

It has also come to light in recent weeks that several sumo training facilities, known as stables, have been financed with contributions from gangsters.

“The sport made itself vulnerable to this situation,” Sugiyama said. “There are simply too many stables now. Some stablemasters take out loans from banks but others can’t resist the offers of anti-social elements.”

As a result of the recent revelations, NHK decided for the first time since 1953 not to broadcast live daily coverage of the recently completed Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, a move Sugiyama agreed with.

“That was the right thing to do,” Sugiyama said. “NHK, which is a public broadcaster, got many faxes and telephone calls before the Nagoya tournament and 70% of those were in favour of not broadcasting the tournament.”

In an incident last year, gangsters from a notorious crime syndicate had complimentary front-row seats at a tournament to bolster the spirits of fellow members in prison.

The gangsters were clearly visible on the live TV broadcasts, one of the few shows inmates are allowed to watch in jail.

Sugiyama said the next tournament in September could see a similar blackout unless the Japan Sumo Association takes steps to clean up the sport.

“It all depends on what reforms are implemented by the JSA,” Sugiyama said. “Until specific reforms are introduced we won’t know, so the autumn tournament could be held under the same circumstances as Nagoya.”

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