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Sumo scandal spreads as top wrestler is sacked

Japan's national sport is in crisis after one of its top wrestlers was sacked last night for illegally laying thousands of dollars in bets with Yakuza gangsters.

Kotomitsuki, the 34-year-old who holds sumo's second-highest Ozeki ranking, allegedly tried to pocket 5 million yen (£38,000) in winnings from bets on baseball games, then paid off a mobster who was blackmailing him for 3.5 million yen.

More than two dozen wrestlers, officials and stable-masters are involved in the scandal, which has exposed the sport to further unwanted scrutiny as it struggles with declining audiences and allegations of bribery and match-fixing.

The sport's ruling body, the Japan Sumo Association, last night also fired stable master Otake, who had borrowed up to 30 million yen from Kotomitsuki after stacking up his own huge debts betting with the mob.

"We have caused considerable trouble and I apologise from the bottom of my heart," said outgoing JSA Chairman Musashigawa, who has been suspended for failing to stop the betting. "We humbly accept the advice that has been offered to us and we will make efforts to ensure that we do not have another scandal like this."

The JSA is hoping that its first sacking of an active Ozeki will draw a line under the spreading scandal ahead of the annual Nagoya tournament, which starts next weekend. Some officials have called for the tournament to be scrapped.

State broadcaster NHK is threatening to pull the plug on coverage of the event after it reported that leading gangsters were given front-row seats at last year's tournament by elderly stable masters, allegedly in return for gambling debt waivers

NHK, which has exclusive rights to broadcast sumo, says that the mobsters wanted the seats, which are directly in the TV cameras' line of sight, to cheer up their associates doing time in prison. Sumo insiders say the tradition is at least half-a-century old. Sumo's associations with the underworld are well known but the scale of the illicit betting, the involvement of Japan's top broadcaster and police involvement forced the JSA to act. Last month the police arrested a former wrestler with mob connections who had tried to extort 100 million yen from Kotomitsuki.

In recent years, the ancient sport has weathered a series of damaging scandals, including suspensions for drug-taking by top wrestlers and the beating to death of a young apprentice. Top draw, Asashoryu, abruptly quit in February following a drunken fracas outside a nightclub in which he allegedly assaulted a man.

Fans interviewed on TV yesterday said they are worried for sumo's future. "It's such a shame that this has happened to our sport," one man from Nagoya told NHK. "I think there is more to come."