Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sumo R.I.P.

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the last Japanese yokozuna reigned and the years of the slow, irrecoverable decline into irrelevance of this ancient and noble martial sport, there was an age undreamed of, when gleaming behemoths clashed across the land like shining gods beneath the stars - Kaio, Kotomitsuki, the iceman Hakuho with his steely grace, sad-eyed Bulgarian Kotooshu, Harumafuji with his supreme craft, the giant Baruto with incomparable strength. Matching their skill and power against each other in the eternal quest for greatness and immortality. But the proudest warrior of all was Asashoryu, reigning supreme from the dreaming steppes of the west. From the land over the sea he came, the Mongolian, black-topknotted, fire-eyed, mawashi-clad, sword in hand, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic girth, to tread the sacred clay of the dohyo under his bare feet."

We shall remember him.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Day Sumo Died

Sumo died yesterday.

Asashoryu, the yokozuna grandchampion, was forced to retire yesterday.
After a meeting with the Japan Sumo Association he announced his retirement at a press conference. And though at the conference he said he was retiring as he "had caused a lot of trouble in the world", there can be no doubt it was pressure by the JSA that brought on the retirement against his will.

On January 16th Asashoryu was involved in an incident at a nightclub in Tokyo. Turns out he got drunk and punched someone, breaking a guy's nose. Admittedly this is inappropriate behaviour for someone in his position...but being forced to retire is hardly fitting punishment. It is just more evidence of the JSA being unhappy with the reality of modern sport.

The truth is that Asashoryu has been 'a bad boy' for a long time and the conservative JSA (not to mention conservative Japanese in general) have always been unhappy with him. In 2003 he was disqualified in a bout for pulling the hair of an opponent (probably accidentally). The disagreement continued in the locker room and apparently he smashed the guy's car mirror. He also drew condemnation for raising his fists in triumph after a recent tournament victory.

Asashoryu is a spirited guy. He gets angry. He often throws opponents out of the ring instead of pushing them. He has a big ego.

In other words, he is kind of like...a top athlete. And God knows that sumo, a dying sport trapped in meaningless ritual, ignored by Japanese youth, and straighjacketed by declining revenues, needs a bit of life. A bit of bravado. A personality. In any other sport his normal behaviour would receive little comment and his worse excesses would get him warnings or a fine. In Australia, cricketers abuse each other and umpires regularly. As for footballers, newspaper headlines are full of rapes, bashings, and drug orgies. And those guys get warnings and suspensions. Sumo has lost its greatest athlete because one guy got punched.

Of course the Japanese media is claiming this latest incident is the final straw after years of behaviour not befitting a yokozuna. But some of the things Asashoryu got in trouble for in the past are ludicrous, and reflect more on the punishers than the punished. For example last year he committed the unforgivable, mortal go-to-hell sin of playing golf with other Mongolian wrestlers just before a tournament. And his most famous transgressiion was 'feigning injury' and missing an unimportant regional tournament to go back home to Mongolia for a visit, where he was filmed playing soccer and seemingly not so injured after all. For this he was banned for the next two tournaments. This is a punishment akin to banning Roger Federer from two Wimbledons for failing to turn up to the Queen's tournament. The suspension led to a bout of depression and poor performance from which Asashoryu only recovered last year. Then he staged a come back and the bouts between him and rival yokozuna Hakuho were the highlights of each tournament.

The biggest loser in this sad epic is not Asashoryu, of course. It is not even the JSA, whose members must live with throwing away the best wrestler they will ever see in their lives. The real losers are sumo fans and the Japanese public in general, who are faced with yet more evidence that their leaders and role models are atavistic and out-of-touch dinosaurs dooming their culture to irrelevance.

Asashoryu was an incredible talent. Speed, strength and skill in perfect balance. At his best he was untouchable. In 2005 he won all six tournaments, several without losing a single bout. He also won the first tournament this year in decisive form, making the iceman Hakuho look decidedly fragile, and moving into 3rd place on the all-time list for most title wins. He is only 29 years old, and certainly has several years of top form potentially in him. Now we shall never know if he could have been the greatest sumo rikishi ever. Who will take the next tournament seriously, when Hakuho or Harumafuji lifts the Emperor's Cup, and the huge ghost of Asashoryu looms over everyone, unfought and unforgotten?

Shame, Japan, Shame.