Sumo’s Injury Issues Boil Over


Yokozuna-crew

A theme that Andy and I have been chasing for more than a year is the problem sumo has with headline athletes and their injuries. For a variety of reasons, most sumotori are never given enough time or resources to heal from the injuries they sustain, and their cumulative effect quickly degrades their performance, and in short order, their prospects for continued competition.

In general the health of the rikishi, especially the headliners, is not discussed and not publicized. These men are to be icons of the strength and power of the sport, and to show injury or weakness is not part of the facade. In reality, the health of many of these headline athletes has been in tenuous and degrading conditions for the last few years. With the advent of web-based media and near constant attention, the ability to dismiss a rikishi’s difficulties are almost impossible to mask.

Which brings us to the Aki basho. Three Yokozuna of four are laid up due to injuries they can’t seem to heal. The fourth (Harumafuji) is also in tough shape, but he is going to compete anyhow. I think at this point, the NSK knows they have a problem. A list of rikishi who are kyujo before the first day of competition

  • Yokozuna Hakuho
  • Yokozuna Kisenosato
  • Yokozuna Kakuryu
  • Maegashira Aoiyama
  • Maegashira Sadanoumi

That means that both he yusho and jun-yusho winners from Nagoya are out. The majority of the faces on the promotional posters will not appear. The sport is having an injury crisis, and they can no longer hide it.

The following quotes are courtesy of Kintamayama, who (as always) is the man with the inside knowledge.

Sumo Association Chairman, Hakkaku“It’s really regrettable that we’ve come to this at this point.. We finally have 4 Yokozunae and the fans have sold out the venue in anticipation of seeing this wonderful sight.. I think this is extremely inexcusable towards all the fans. The banzuke is well balanced with the newcomers and the veterans, so I have a lot of expectations from the young guys..”

PR Director Shibatayama“It’s really inexcusable that three Yokozuna are missing during these days when the fans are filling the seats. Still, a Yokozuna is a human being. Showing up in bad shape will not do any good for anyone..”

To be clear, both men are laying blame not on their athletes, but on the Sumo Kyokai for putting on a Honbasho that will be missing a large number of the headline competitors. It’s bad enough for fans in Japan, but consider the growing number of sumo enthusiasts that fly to Japan during the basho to take in a few days at the matches. While we at Tachiai joke that we are an adjunct to the sumo world, I am quite sure that both the NSK media have noticed that sumo is flowering into a global sport.

What happens next? No one can tell, but I will take my best guess

  • Look for retirements, both within the NSK and within the upper ranks of sumo THIS YEAR. Much as it will pain them to clear the decks, they will need a team of headliners that they can count on to appear at every tournament. That’s what puts butts in seats, sells banners and drives ratings.
  • Look for Fall and Winter Jungyo to be curtailed or even eliminated. The current pace set by the Jungyo team has been punishing, and leaves the rikishi little to no time to maintain condition or seek medical attention for their injuries. This could be billed as a “Health and safety training period”, and given the Aki carnage, it would be accepted.
  • Modifications to the area around the dohyo – This is quite unlikely, but many of these rikishi are injured falling from the dohyo during a match. There may be some unobtrusive ways that maintain the aesthetics of the dohyo and decrease the injury potential of a ungraceful dismount.

As Aki progresses, the team that makes up Osumo will band together to make Aki possibly one of the great, anything can happen bashos of our time.

22 thoughts on “Sumo’s Injury Issues Boil Over

  1. I think the only effective option is the third, though I agree with you that it’s unlikely, considering the darn hard-headed conservatism of the Kyokai.

    If any retirements are to be considered, it should be of the inflexible oyakata who do not consider change to be a good thing. Heck, traditional artisans all over Japan have been modifying and changing their work for centuries and are even more aware of that necessity now. Potters work on new types of glazing that work with modern kilns. Silk producers improve silkworm husbandry and create new breeds for better silk. Weavers make new kinds of garments using old techniques. Restorers of ancient goods use new chemicals. But the Sumo association thinks that change is not part of Japanese tradition. Sumo has originally been created to entertain the gods. Someone should ask the elders since when Japanese gods have been entertained by human sacrifice.

    Other than fixing the dohyo (and re-introducing the kosho-seido rule, perhaps subject to presentation of MRI or whatever to prevent abuse), perhaps some guidance to heya to shift diets and training away from sheer weight through excess fat, toward more muscle mass and, yes, endurance training. There are ways to do that without hurting joints (e.g. water exercise). I think Hakuho is going in the correct direction with his uchi-deshi, who seem to be on the lean-and-mean side, in addition to keeping his own body in relatively good shape (considering over 16 years of battery). Combine lower masses with a safer work environment, and I’m sure there will be improvement in the number of injuries.

    I’m less sure that changing the jungyo is really going to be effective. First, it seems that many rikishi allow themselves to be absent from jungyo. Of course there is pressure for PR reasons, but not as bad as in honbasho. Also, most of the injuries on the list don’t seem to be jungyo related, except perhaps Hakuho’s.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As always, excellent and insightful commentary. The idea about Jungyo was not that it is a source of injury, but rather to focus the rikishi that might be out on tour instead on improved physical conditioning in general during that time, and the ones that are injured may perceive that they have enough time to seek proper medical attention.

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    • Maybe not a full reprieve from demotion but instead a shallower demotion trajectory following a kyujo would better balance the competing incentives in play. Right now it seems like a missed tournament scores like a 2-13 or so; if a missed tournament affected rank like a 7-8 or 6-9 record then rikishi might be more willing to take necessary recovery time.

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    • What makes you believe that such training and diet changes would actually benefit individual rikishi? And by “benefit”, I mean “improve their honbasho performance”. Collegiate rikishi are spending their university years in training environments probably quite similar to what you’re envisioning, yet they’re frequently much heavier than same-age sumotori who turned pro at younger ages.

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      • I was not thinking about improving the honbasho performance. I was thinking about reducing chances of injury. Are you sure they do things different than the professional heya? Granted, have not visited any sumo-bu in any university, and I gather my info purely from the internet. They seem to have more or less the same regimen as the heya.

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        • I’m not saying they necessarily do things differently in actual practice, just that they’re in environments where they have access to all the things that you think are missing from the pro coaching, simply because they’re in much closer contact to athletes, coaches and training methods from other sports. Heck, some of the collegiate sumotori are studying sports science themselves. Yet it doesn’t seem to make a material difference. Maybe because the standard sumo training is actually pretty close to optimal as far as performance goes?

          And if your suggestions aren’t going to improve that performance, how are you going to get them adopted? Professional sumo is far from the only high-level sport that isn’t exactly healthy to do in the long run, after all. Athletes will do what it takes to be successful, with limited consideration of the long-term effects.

          But, blaming the training methods rather misses the point anyway, IMHO. Sumo – all of it, not just the pro ranks – tends to attract competitors who are naturally large, either because of genetics or because they like to eat a lot. More weight is typically performance-enhancing in sumo; only up to a point, but that point is quite far out, compared to regularly sized people. Consequently, for rikishi of similar base talent, the ones who are better able to get big are typically more successful. It’s always been this way, just the baseline has slowly shifted upwards across time. Short of mandating hard weight limits that’s not ever going to change.

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  2. One more comment, and then I’ll shut up:

    While there are certainly some medical areas where sumo could stand to improve, those largely deal with rikishi who have already suffered an injury. The fundamentals can’t be changed: Sumo is inherently dangerous. Rikishi will get injured. Older rikishi will get injured more often. Any fan will either have to come to accept that, or find a different sport to follow. There are no magic bullets here, just some possible incremental gains (which may have other, unintended consequences).

    We’re at a point in time when nearly all the top guys are old and on the way out, simply because there happened to be a brief period that produced an unusually large amount of talent. That’s no injury crisis, that’s just an unavoidable consequence of fortunate timing. Enjoy the fact that we got more than 10 years of excellent top-division sumo out of the 1984 to 1986-born Hakuho/Harumafuji/Kakuryu/Kisenosato/Kotoshogiku/Goeido group, and try not to cling to the past. That’s never a good idea in individual sports. There was sumo before, and there will be sumo after. And the sumo to come in the near future will probably have a more diverse age mix again, but also fewer long-term rivalries than we got to appreciate over the last decade.

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    • One of the things that I think does matter in terms of medicine in this sport is the intensity of the schedule. There are very few places in the sumo calendar where an injured rikishi can undergo treatment and rehabilitation. As a result, many of them try to muddle through.

      This limits the careers of these men. I do accept that this is just how it goes for sumo, but it should be possible to still have sumo with some level of workable injury treatment that has a reasonable chance of recovery for some of the more typical injuries.

      Your point of being at the end of a generational cycle is well made, and is one I have been trying to make for the past 8 months or so. The great news is that the next generation looks to be very good indeed. Sumo will go on, and we will continue to love the sport.

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  3. The mass retirement of the current yokozuna crop is not so far-fetched. Since the six-tournament era kicked in the median age for yokozuna retirement is 31 (will show working if required). Harumafuji is 33, Hakuho and Kakuryu are 32 and Kisenosato is 31, so they are all at or past the age we might expect a yokozuna to retire.

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  4. Sponsors are pulling their kensho because of the injuries. I think this is one major pressure factor on Yokozuna. Personally, if there are any of our readers with the means, I would encourage them to fill that void. This will be a very entertaining and competitive basho and as Asashosakari pointed out, this is likely the start of a natural “changing of the guard” process as older rikishi finally face the music after careers any football player would consider long and fulfilled. The sport is dangerous but the same number of eyeballs will pack the Kokugikan as last tournament. I don’t see why sponsors would pull money from the whole sport rather than finding new tadpoles to promote.

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  5. “Modifications to the area around the dohyo”

    Definitely need some rubber padding or matting on the floor around the perimeter of the dohyo, the spectators would never notice, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

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  6. I don’t see a reason to fret. The Yokozuna are all past their physical prime, and are heading towards the end of careers rich of epic fights.
    It’s a very western thing to do to think about “how to make something better”, especially something that is quite far away from our homes.
    Don’t take this as a critic, I really like reading this blog. It’s my view of things: I very much prefer that Grand Sumo remains in the hands of the Japanese with all its “peculiar” traditions and rituals.
    Olympic Sumo on the other hand, seen as an amatorial sport open to everyone, males and females alike, I’m happy if it becomes the “global movement” it aspires to be, open to all forms of modernisation..

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me it’s not fretting. The NSK needs a group of headliners. It’s no different than any other sport, you are going to have stars. If your stars don’t show up for your events, you get less revenue. As simple as that. The either need to do what it takes to get their stars healthy and showing up, or they need new stars. Both are sufficient, the keep the stars healthy path is faster and easier.

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  7. In the end, three aging yokozuna missing a tournament through injury is blessed paradise, compared to the kind of upheavals we had not so long ago. I’m guessing many Tachiai readers weren’t following sumo closely between 2007 and 2011, and you can be glad for that. A quick summary:

    – (2007) an oyakata and several rikishi dismissed and ultimately sent to jail for a case of fatal hazing
    – (2008) several rikishi dismissed for drug use, their oyakata sanctioned including the chief director stepping down from his post
    – (2010) a yokozuna forced out for repeated misbehaviour, with public brawling the last straw
    – (2010) an oyakata having his heya taken away (temporarily) for passing sumo tickets to yakuza members
    – (2010) an ozeki and an oyakata dismissed and multiple other rikishi suspended for illegal gambling, their oyakata sanctioned and another chief director stepping down
    – (2010) a well-known idiot oyakata having his heya taken away (for good) for drunkenly boasting to his mistress about having orchestrated yaocho (for an unaware Hakuho’s alleged benefit, no less!)
    – (2011) large-scale yaocho revelations (not related to the previous bullet point), resulting in the dismissal of 25-odd rikishi and recently retired ex-rikishi, loads of oyakata sanctioned again
    – (2011) an oyakata sanctioned for drunk driving

    That last one feels pretty benign after all the others, doesn’t it? And I haven’t even mentioned the small handful of cases of retired rikishi suing their ex-stablemasters for alleged mistreatment during that period of time. (None of which made major waves in the end.)

    Those were (not exactly) the days…

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    • (Sheesh, and I forgot to include that the gambling incident led to NHK refusing to broadcast Nagoya Basho 2010, and the yaocho scandal of course led to the outright cancellation of Haru 2011.)

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    • Nah, not even close to the end of days. Frankly if all I was able to see / follow was Juryo, I would find a way to enjoy it. But as mentioned above, they have a problem that their star roster is no longer reliable. This will (or currently does) impact their revenue (see Andy’s post on Kensho). They either need to find a way to get and keep their stars healthy, or get new stars.

      If you add the current state in with the fact that some of the folks they have been or are currently grooming to be stars are also in banged up conditions (Ura, Endo), it might be wise to examine and plan out how they can keep their “product” on the market. Hence the thesis of the post.

      1) Clear out the unhealthy right away
      2) Lower non-basho intensity to give rikishi more opportunity for treatment and healing
      3) Improve dohyo geometry to lower risk of injury on dismount.

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      • Kensho are at an all-time high though, even with the cancellations (which happen all the time when there are withdrawals, even mid-basho).

        In Takanohana’s time they used to get a few hundred per basho, and in the Asashoryu days (before the scandals mentioned above) it was considered almost unbelievable that they were suddenly inching towards the 1,000 mark, even while sumo business as a whole was stagnant. Nowadays 1,500 are commonplace and the 2,000 mark has been cracked repeatedly.

        Anyway, the effects of high-ranker turnover are basically unpredictable, in my opinion. The end of the Taka-Waka era left a big hole, while the end of Chiyonofuji’s era had segued almost seamlessly into a much more profitable period. Similarly, nobody saw Chiyonofuji coming and what his charismatic persona would do for sumo.

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      • And on another note: This “they’re grooming X to be a future star” angle is very out of place in sumo. This isn’t boxing or the UFC. It’s always been up to the rikishi to make themselves into stars, the Association just provides the framework. They’ll take advantage of what happens to come along (the borderline inexplicable Endo hype a case in point), but they don’t manufacture hype or hopes themselves.

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        • When it comes to what happens on the dohyo, I agree with you. A rikishi who is not dominant in the ring is not worth media attention. But out of the rikishi who are doing well, there are a number of choices that get made based on factors beyond their win / loss record. When I talk about grooming stars, I am referencing those activities. Who gets featured, who gets media time. And no, I don’t believe things like Endo or Ura hype are 100% organic. Some entity pushes those guys into the hype bubble.

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