Some of Japan's top sumo wrestlers were embroiled in a match-fixing scandal yesterday, in the latest blow to the ancient national sport that was already reeling from claims of drug-taking, illegal gambling and ties to Yakuza gangsters. Mobile phones confiscated by police investigating an illegal betting syndicate have revealed dozens of text messages from wrestlers suggesting they sold bouts for thousands of pounds a pop.
The alleged scam involved 11 wrestlers, including three from sumo's premier division, and at least two coaches. Reports in the Japanese press say the wrestlers swapped information on upcoming matches and worked out how and when to take dives on to the dohyo, the sumo ring.
The state broadcaster NHK claims that some bouts went for up to £3,800 and that wrestlers worked out quid pro quo arrangements in what was a pattern of repeated cheating.
Sumo's governing body launched an investigation into the allegations and summoned most of the men for an explanation yesterday. "We will think of how to deal with this once we have gathered information," Japan Sumo Association chairman Hanaregoma said yesterday. "I deeply apologise to the fans."
It remains to be seen how fans will react after enduring years of scandals that have blackened the sport's image and badly damaged its already waning popularity.
Last year, one of the top wrestlers was expelled for illegally laying thousands of pounds in bets with gangsters. Kotomitsuki, who held sumo's second-highest Ozeki ranking, allegedly tried to pocket five 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. A total of 40 wrestlers have since admitted involvement in the betting ring.
NHK, which has exclusive broadcast rights to sumo, angrily pulled its coverage of last summer's tournament after reporting that leading Yakuza gangsters were given front-row seats by elderly stable masters, allegedly in return for waiving gambling debts.
NHK said the mobsters wanted the seats, directly in the TV cameras' line of sight, to cheer up associates in prison. Sources inside the sumo world said the odd tradition was half a century old.
Rumours of Yakuza ties and match-fixing, vehemently denied by the sumo association, have hung over the sport for years – although they have never been proven. Mr Hanaregoma responded to the latest claims yesterday by saying his organisation had "never had this problem before".
"I understand this as being something new," he said. Last year the publisher of the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai was forced to pay more than £300,000 in damages to the association after it claimed the former grand champion Asashoryu repeatedly paid opponents to lose matches in 2006 and 2007. The magazine said bouts involving top wrestlers were fixed going all the way back to 1975.
A now infamous whistle-blowing book by the veteran wrestler Onaruto and commentator Seiichiro Hashimoto in 1996 made the same match-rigging claims and added a few more: Yakuza supplied wrestlers with women and drugs. Most damaging of all in a sport that takes itself very seriously and which is steeped in pseudo-religious tradition, Mr Hashimoto said it was "just show business – like pro-wrestling".
Both men later died of unknown causes. On the same day.
Years of allegations, ignored by the association, that young apprentices were violently and dangerously hazed to "toughen them up" climaxed in 2009 when a stable master was sentenced to six years in prison for beating to death a 17-year-old apprentice, Takashi Saito.
"I just wanted to help him become a respectable wrestler," the stable master said when asked to explain the condition of Saito's body, which was covered with bruises, cuts and cigarette burns. Saito's family said the stable colluded with police and doctors to cover up their son's death.
Those claims have confirmed for many what has always been suspected – that the climb to the top of sumo's greasy pole, and the riches and fame it brings, is not for the timid. A survey by the association itself found that beatings and punishments were common at most sumo stables. Indeed, for many older fans, part of the sport's problem is that it can no longer recruit Japanese teenagers tough enough to withstand its bracing challenges. "Tough love has always been part of sumo," said British-born sumo commentator Doreen Simmons.
But it is the palpable decline of the sport's cherished dignity that has tried the patience of the average fan. In recent years, several top wrestlers have been suspended for drug-taking, confirming the fear that the new breed does not know how to bear the weight of tradition outside the ring. Last month, two top-ranked wrestlers drunkenly fought at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo, smashing tables and glass partitions.
Sumo's only genuine modern superstar, Asashoryu, abruptly quit last year following another drunken fracas outside a nightclub in which he allegedly assaulted a man. The Mongolian wrestler had been a thorn in the side of the Sumo Association for years. In 2007, the JSA handed him one of the toughest punishments in the sport's history, suspending him and slashing his monthly salary after he took sick leave to return home and play in a charity football match.
The brawls, the drug-taking claims and other scandals have all involved foreigners, confirming for some xenophobes that the sport's slide coincides with the end of local dominance. But yesterday's allegations, like Yakuza ties, are as Japanese as sushi.
"This problem shakes the very foundation of our sport," admitted Mr Hanaregoma yesterday. "If it is confirmed to be true, we will severely punish those involved."
The police have no powers to investigate match-fixing, and few people are holding their breath waiting for the association to clean up the sport.
Match-fixing in sport
The beautiful game has been tarnished by a string of match-fixing allegations. A Far Eastern syndicate with links to London gangsters nobbled two English games in the 1990s by tampering with floodlights, plunging the matches into darkness. In 2005, referee Robert Hoyzer was jailed for more than two years for his part in Germany's biggest match-fixing scandal for 30 years.
Cricket's most shameful hour came with the confession in 2000 by former South African captain Hansie Cronje that he took money to manipulate international matches. Gloom returned with a News of the World sting last year accusing several Pakistan players of taking money to arrange no balls to be bowled in a match against England.
Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life after taking money to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series final. The team – who came to be known as the Black Sox – were angered by the level of their wages.