Updated – More thoughts on the concussion issue

2021’s Hatsu Basho started amid fears, if not controversy, brought by the pandemic. It ended amid true controversy, on a different, albeit also health-related, matter: brain concussion among sumo wrestlers.

Before moving on this topic, let’s have a look back at what happened.

What happened?

Makushita, day 10. Shonannoumi faces Asagyokusei. Shonannoumi botches the tachi-ai, moves forward as his opponent still stands behind the shikiri-sen. Asagyokusei raises, both collide heavily on the head, and Shonannoumi falls to the clay.

The victim: Shonannoumi

At this point, the gyoji has two options:

A) Approving the tachi-ai. In that case, Asagyokusei has to be called the winner;

B) Calling a matta. That’s what happened during the bout. The gyoji orders a redo – the shimpan judges even quickly reunite in order to discuss on that matter, only to order to proceed further.
But Shonannoumi is obviously unable to do any kind of effort whatsoever – he stands up several times, only to lose balance and fall awkwardly again and again.
Eventually, he stands on his feet, the bout is a go, and Shonannoumi even wins it. But that’s not the point at all. Obviously, his health has been seriously endangered.

Has it happened before?

Of course, the Hokutofuji bout against Ryuden, in May of 2018, springs to mind. Basically, the story is the same.

Hokutofuji also suffered from concussion, in 2018

I’d also like to mention a crazy bout where Azumaryu and Tobizaru faced each other in juryo in 2019 (on day 9 of the Nagoya basho, to be exact). After a long fight full of twists and downs, after even a mawashi matta, both sekitori send each other outside the limits of the ring, and fall heavily to the ground. The catch is, it was realistically impossible to declare a clear-cut winner, and a torinaoshi was ordered. Here, Azumaryu, and especially Tobizaru, looked too exhausted to fight once more. The latter lost the re-match without being at full capacity.

What could have been done ?

My question would rather be: does a sumo bout necessarily have to see out a winner ?
As a chess player, I know individual sports can see contests concluded without a winner. It does not happen in tennis or in Formula One, but it does happen in darts, another lesser known sport.

Anyway, if football or rugby have an extended medical protocol in case of a concussion, in my opinion a handy solution exists. If this were unfortunately to happen again in sumo (and some day, it will happen again): the reintroduction of draws in sumo.

In fact, sumo initially allowed various kinds of draw. Let’s examine them.

Firstly, azukari used to be called, when a bout’s issue was too close to call, and no clear-cut winner could be nominated.The bout then just ended in a draw.

Secondly, hikiwake used to represent the situation when the opponents fought for some time, and no one could take the advantage. Here, too, the result would just be a draw.

Obviously, both cases don’t appear any more today. Instead of an azukari, a torinaoshi would just be called; and instead of a hikiwake, the shimpan judges would raise their hands after four minutes, and a mizu-iri would be orderer: the “water break”.

To be exact, the last azukari was seen in 1951, whereas the last hikiwake could be witnessed in 1974. And, obviously, neither of these calls fit to Shonannoumi’s situation.

Thirdly, the case of a mushōbu is interesting. That call could be heard if a bout was too close to call, and if the gyoji decided not to point his gumbai to anyone. In the 1860’s, that system was replaced, and only the shimpan judges could then decide not to declare someone as the winner. And then, that system has been replaced by the torinaoshi rule.

And finally, the itamiwake is what we’re looking for. It occurred when a rikishi got injured and could not continue – usually, not taking part in a torinaoshi.

The last wrestlers to benefit from some itamiwake respite were Narutoumi and Wakabayama, back in 1958.

Couldn’t Shonannoumi benefit from such an allowance?

Let’s reintroduce itamiwake in sumo!

Update: that issue, and the Shonannoumi case have seemingly given fruits. The shimpan department has just decided to act, not allowing any more hurt rikishi to fight again. From now, rikishi suffering from concussion prior to a match (or, of course, right after a matta) will lose by default:

That may not be the end to all our problems, but that’s definitely a great start.

16 thoughts on “Updated – More thoughts on the concussion issue

  1. The problem here was the matta, not the injury itself. There are many concussions during sumo matches. And an itamiwake can still be called.

    The problem is that the rule doesn’t apply to a matta situation, because the match basically hasn’t begun at all.

    The reason the judges convened here wasn’t to approve the matta or a torinaoshi. There was no monoii. The reason they convened was because they knew the rules don’t cover this case and wanted to decide on what they should do.

    Their conclusion was that they should ask Shonannoumi if he can continue, and if not, the match would be cancelled. He said he could go on, and they let it go on. They were later criticized for allowing it to be at his discretion. The shimpan department is going to convene in the next few days to decide on a rule for an injury that follows a matta.

    The situation is tricky because judges are not doctors, and it’s up to their discretion to decide whether a player is injured or just reeling a bit. That’s why they never brought up the Hokutofuji thing as precedent. They didn’t consider it one – Hokutofuji got up to his feet quickly enough that a former rikishi would think nothing of it. Medically speaking, it’s a different story, but as I said, they are not medical experts, and live in a culture where honor trumps injury.

    I would like to see a serious reform of the whole injury management policy, not just a return of itamiwake or anything, starting with medics and a ready stretcher and restrains etc., ready next to the dohyo, at all levels of the sport from Jonokuchi to Yokozuna.

    • I remember how angry and disgusted I was watching Takayasu writhe in pain and not a single first aider in sight.

      A doctor by the ring, with proper first aid attention, would go a long way to determine whether an athlete ‘could continue’.

    • “The problem is that the rule doesn’t apply to a matta situation, because the match basically hasn’t begun at all.”

      If the wrestler is unable to start the match due to injury, could an adaption of the kyujo rules apply in future? I’m guessing you’d need to create a new rule giving someone the power to impose an instant kyujo though?

      And I’m guessing that the ‘someone’ would have to be a medical professional. I can’t see a gyoji or chief judge handing out kyujos because honour etc etc…

      • This is basically what they have done. Today they decided that if a situation in which a rikishi is considered in a state “too dangerous to wrestle” before a match, they’ll declare that match a fusensho (for the other guy).

  2. A couple comments:

    1) a good recent take to reference is John Gunning’s article in the Japan Times which is one of the strongest public comments on the subject in recent memory: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2021/01/20/sumo/concussions/

    2) I was at the basho the day of the Ryuden/Hokutofuji match. Ryuden at the time was a serial tachiai offender and it was extremely common to see him jump the tachiai before mutual consent (even now it’s an issue for him, but less). It should have been obvious anywhere you sat in that arena that Hokutofuji wasn’t down and Ryuden went through him like a freight train, and I believe afterwards it had been reported that he cracked vertebrae (someone correct me if I’m wrong).

    You’ll see these happen during the tachiai (as Gunning describes), but it’s worth discussion whether more definitive action can and should be taken if it happens in the course of matta where the rikishi suffering the concussion symptoms is not the offender. Personally I believe a walkover win should be awarded to the rikishi on the receiving end in that circumstance, although I know it’s not realistic to expect that.

    As Herouth points out there is no rule to deal with this, and I’m hopeful that when the kyokai looks at the situation they can prescribe some significant changes.

    • If anything, it should be a walkover win for the non-offending rikishi in every case. Suggesting, as the article does, that draws should be handed out if a concussion (or other injury) happens is, I’m sorry to say, incredibly dumb. It would be ridiculously open to attempts to game the system by rikishi seeking to avoid a likely loss, either by attempting to knock out their opponent, or by pretending to be unable to continue fighting. (And I don’t want to hear anything about how rikishi would never do that. This whole thing is a matter of treating sumo as the modern, big-money sport it is, and gaming the system is a fact of life for those.)

      • That and there’s also the issue that draws open up a gnarly calculus in banzuke terms in a system which largely (not always) treats a non-performance as a loss.

        The other option, if they decide doing a walkover win/loss is too extreme, could simply be to introduce another “non winning” kimarite. I don’t know how that would exactly work though in the context of a match that didn’t happen, so fusen seems to be the cleanest way.

        As I said though, I just don’t expect them to go that route no matter how much sense it makes to us, because, you know, well… you know.

  3. Not strictly on topic, but I have to feel a bit sorry for Asagyokusei, who deserves respect for the way he handled a very difficult situation. In the torinaoshi he just let Shonannoumi win as he wasn’t prepared to do any more damage to an injured opponent.

    I think the only solution is to have trained medical staff (with some clout) on hand at all times. This would not necessarily mean doctors, a good paramedic would do, and if they don’t want to involve “outsiders”- which might include (horror of all horrors) women- they should stump up the funds to put some of the yobidashi through basic medical training. I think the authorities hate the idea of giving anyone power over their representatives: they don’t want a solemn conference of Shinpan being interrupted by a medic yelling “get this man to a hospital”.

    The hikiwake is still a common result in Cricket, by the way.

    • Agree entirely about Asagyokusei, he’s actually taking a punishment here by accepting a defeat in order to “do the right thing”.

      I wondered why, as this was a lower division bout and they only fight on 7 or possibly 8 days out of 15, couldn’t the judges have just decided to postpone the bout to the next free day? Obviously this is not a solution for Juryo or Makuuchi, nor if it was a final day playoff, But for 99% of lower division bouts having this discretion would allow things to go forward without putting anyone at unnecessary risk. Maybe a sacrilegious suggestion for sumo, but there is precedent in soccer, cricket and both types of rugby – dangerous conditions or occasionally a very severe injury – abandon and play again another day.

      • The days of the lower division matches are not arbitrarily distributed. There basho is split into four pairs of days and one triplet. In a sense, Days 1-2 are “Day 1” of the lower divisions, Days 3-4 are “Day 2”, Days 5-6 are “Day 3”, and so for, with days 13-14-15 making “Day 7”.

        After each such pair is complete, the torikumi committee decides the matches for the next “day pair”, based on the results. Rikishi are matched based on their result in the previous “pair”. If this happened on day 9, they could possibly postpone it to day 10 with no harm done, but on day 10, they need the result of this match to match these two wrestlers for days 11 and 12, and who are they going to match them with?

        • I think this explains the reluctance to entertain the idea of a postponed bout. However with carefully drafted rules it could be worked around in most cases. As you say, odd numbered days are no problem. If it happens on an even-numbered day like day 10, you would have the rearranged bout on the next day (day 11) and you could line up a group of three possible opponents for each of the rikishis involved on the day after (the second day of the couplet, day 12 in this case). Once the day 11 rematch result is known, for each group of 4 you create the two most appropriate match-up pairs depending how the result of the delayed match went. Perhaps there could be a problem if it was day 12 and someone might be 6-0 or 5-1 as it’s then really critical that the lineup is totally balanced, but in most cases I think the system could absorb it. However knowing sumo and its idiosyncrasies, I’m not suggesting that there’s much chance of a solution like this for the concussion problem being considered !!!

        • On another note, I’m no medical expert, so I don’t know how much of a rest is needed in case of a concussion, but I know from NBA that it’s not uncommon for athletes to sit out more than one game due to concussion protocol. If it’s only about the immediate effect of dizziness, you could probably just postpone it within the day, but from a medical standpoint even one or two days might not be sufficient.

          • Yes I agree – many concussion incidents are sufficiently severe that a 24 hour rest isn’t enough to reduce ongoing risk. At least the above suggestion allows for a day’s rest (and presumably then a requirement for medical clearance to be able to continue the next day so a proper evaluation can be undertaken without massive time pressure, and if possible with a protocol that makes the physician err on the side of caution where there is reasonable doubt). If not medically cleared the rikishi would then be out irrespective of whatever rules were designed, but this system means a day’s rest would be guaranteed and it avoids the temptation to rush straight back in as occurred last week with the attendant risk of further brain injury. I looked at some other sports – e.g. Australia’s NRL has this to say “A player who has suffered a concussion or potential concussion or exhibits the symptoms of concussion should not return to play in the same game (or on the same day), even if they appear to have recovered.” (They quote an international consensus meeting in Berlin from 2016 – see https://www.nrl.com/operations/the-players/management-of-concussion/ )

  4. A reform with rikishi´s health in the focus is urgent. If we consider how little-to nothing the majority of this fellows earn, and the long lasting damages they have to live with at 35, when they are thrown into the “real” world with no cv to make a living from, and a severly diminished lifespan… the least the NSK can do is take a series of steps to try to keep them as healthy as possible.
    I often cringe when they fall akwardly from the dohyo, twist their knees, gain too much weight, or slam their heads with too much vigour. And I´m well aware of all the strong men mentality, samurai warrior semi-god estetic which is essential in sumo… but they are human beings, young fellows who fight for fame or glory or just passion, whatever, they are not pieces of meat who deserve a broken body or mind at the age of 30.
    The shimpan are ex-rikishi who went through all that punishment, and most of them were also in the tiny minority of succesful careers,… so they probably don´t see much of a problem, or don´t have the necessary knowledge.
    Much is made of the importance of tradition in sumo, which is one the aspects I really love about it, it´s outer-wordly… still changes are being made constantly, not all of them make even sense. Changes in the direction of higher quality of life of rikishi would be the most important to date, in my opinion.

  5. This is long overdue. Not just the concussion issue, but the effects of numerous ongoing incidents of head trauma which may not result in a concussion. This is thought to result in Chronic Traumatic Encepalopathy (CTE). While we are still learning about it, there is evidence that the effects are cumulative and can cause symptoms of dementia in later years. Like everybody else has said, one of the reasons I love sumo is for the traditions. But we know so much more than we did throughout sumo’s history, and to my admittedly Western eyes, it is unthinkable not to address this problem. I think there should be preventative measures such as Timothee described, and definitely qualified medical staff at ringside, not just for head injuries but for the plethora of other injuries that occur on a regular basis. I read John Gunnings article, and I feel the same about the ethics of enjoying a sport where the participants sacrifice their health.I feel ghoulish and guiltyy at times. Do they know the risks when they decide to embark on this career? Again, it’s past time to face this issue.

  6. Every basho day we watch these athletes risk injury during their matches. They understand those risks, it goes with the territory. What’s tragic is the failure of the Sumo association to reduce the potential of injuries they could control. Watching 400# individuals be pushed, thrown or fall from an elevated dohyo to a hard surface landing on their head, neck, back, shoulders or ankles needlessly is inexcusable. I understand and respect the value of tradition, but if lowering the dohyo height or widening the elevated surface would reduce preventable injuries, why not do it. How many careers need to be destroyed before unnecessary risks are addressed?


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