Japan wrestles with spectre of corruption

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The Independent Online

The match-fixing epidemic currently afflicting sport continues to spread right round the world. Yesterday in Tokyo, the ruling body for sumo said that several of the best wrestlers have been questioned over allegations that the ancient and traditional sport is rife with corruption.

Officials said, however, that hours of grilling had turned up no evidence of wrongdoing - except on the part of Keisuke Itai, the retired wrestler who made the controversial claims. In all, 18 wrestlers accused of fixing bouts were asked to account for themselves, but officials found no evidence of anything untoward.

"We found nothing to back up what he said," Tokitsukaze, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association and a former wrestler, said. "The wrestlers vehemently denied the allegations."

Itai had set off a media frenzy in Japan earlier this year when he claimed that many bouts are fixed. He acknowledged that he had thrown many of his own fights. Itai, who retired in 1991, said he hoped to revive flagging interest in the sport by rooting out corruption.

All those Itai had identified - including the Hawaiian-born yokozuna, or grand champion, Akebono - were individually questioned by lawyers and sumo association elders, said Tokitsukaze, who like most wrestlers goes by one name.

The scandal comes as no surprise to most sumo fans, who have seen similar controversies overshadow the sport that has for long been as much an art form as well as a symbol of Japan's identity.

Experts say bout-rigging goes back centuries. Such bouts are usually arranged among wrestlers to help someone score the extra win he needs to maintain or be promoted to a higher rank.

"This has come from way back when, and it comes up from time to time into the public notice and into the press," Andy Adams, publisher of Tokyo-based Sumo World magazine said. "It's all part and parcel of sumo."

Some 2,000 years old and with roots in the indigenous Shinto religion, sumo is considered Japan's national sport, although it lags behind professional baseball in popularity. It is fought one-on-one by athletes trying to wrestle each other down or out of an elevated clay ring. Purity is all-important, and the ring is blessed by priests and purified with salt before each bout.

Four years ago, in a series of tabloid articles, Itai's stablemaster, the former wrestler Onaruto, talked about wrestlers who smoked marijuana, cheated on their taxes, hung out with gangsters, joined in orgies and frequently lost matches for money. Officials denied it all.

But shortly afterward, Japan's leading sumo family was hit with back taxes for failing to report more than 400 million yen (£2.4m) in income.

Tokitsukaze pointed out that in 1996 Itai had denied Onaruto's claims about bout-rigging. He said this should demonstrate that Itai cannot be believed.

"I think most people will realize what happened and will recognise the facts," Tokitsukaze said.

The association said it does not plan to sue Itai as it once suggested, since such action would take up wrestlers' time by requiring them to appear in court.