Sumos' reputation goes up in a puff of smoke

Tokyo - It was a proud moment for sumo wrestlers, writes Richard Lloyd Parry. Earlier this month Takanohana, grand champion of Japan's national sport, travelled to Vienna to be made Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations in its fight against drugs. Three weeks later, his campaign is bogged down in embarrassment after accusations of cannabis use among his fellow wrestlers.

"Spliff-gate", as it may yet become known, was triggered by an article in Shukan Gendai, a weekly magazine, on the leisure-time activities of two junior wrestlers, Sunahama and Sentoryu.

Photos show them rolling then blissfully inhaling a cigarette. But more damaging was the text to the piece. "Marijuana? Never. Goodbye," was Sunahama's reply to Shukan Gendai's phone call. Sentoryu, however, confirmed that he smoked the drug and so did several of his bulky chums. The magazine stands by its report but both men have denied it and the Japan Sumo Association is threatening to sue for libel on their behalf.

The affair is complicated by the fact that neither is Japanese. Sentoryu, who is half Armenian, is the first ranking sumo wrestler from the mainland US. Sunahama, like several prominent sumos of recent years, is from Hawaii, where the two allegedly acquired their relaxing habit.

Debate has raged in conservative sumo circles over the suitability of foreigners participating in this quintessentially Japanese sport and the latest scandal will harm the prospects of others rising high, at least by conventional means.