Safey First!

Sumo is a great sport. And as with any activity, there are a variety of risks involved. So, not to be hyperbolic, safety is ultimately all about reducing those risks. First Aid does not stop accidents from happening. They are just a series of procedures that help give the individual the best shot at recovery (or survival). Few of us who watched Takayasu writhe in pain last year, Kizakiumi’s dangerous fall, or any of the times that the big wheelchair is brought out, really feel that there is any process or standard procedure for dealing with any of these injuries.

Last week, Onaruto-oyakata was hit in the face (above) when two wrestlers tumbled off the dohyo. He was knocked backwards and did not move for several seconds. A few minutes later, he walked away back up the hanamichi to get treated. The tournament continued with only four shimpan until there was a shift chagne. It was later revealed he had suffered an eye injury and was treated at the sumo clinic. He has since returned to shimpan duties.

However, less than one week later, a very scary incident occurred involving a sandanme wrestler named Hibikiryu. Accidents happen. People fall awkwardly in sports or event in daily life. People fall while rock climbing, and ice skating, they fall off bikes, horses, or even when under stress on American Idol. A well-trained First Aid response can make a huge difference. While this experience would have been unexpected and very scary for those involved, I think we can have confidence in the treatment received by this American Idol contestant.

Kokugikan has a medical clinic. Yesterday, a doctor mounted the dohyo in consultation with the team of oyakata and yobidashi attending to Hibikiryu when it became apparent he would not be able to leave under this own power. But, I’m not sure if any of you can tell me who was in charge of the situation and I am very concerned by the fact that they did not stabilize his neck. I have read a witness account that Hibikiryu appeared to be speaking to those tending to him and may have asked to be turned over so that it would be easier to breathe. But that turn should have been performed very carefully with the assistance of several people.

It is acceptable to turn over someone with a spinal injury and may be quite necessary due to vomiting or difficulty breathing, as in this case. But do it carefully, usually with the help of four other people….but I admit, I don’t think they often think to train people on treating 150kg sumo wrestlers. That said, there are usually five former wrestlers surrounding the ring, four active wrestlers sitting around the ring, and several yobidashi.

I just think it could inspire a lot of confidence in the organization if there’s the same degree of planning and training present to help injured rikishi as is done before any JR train pulls out of a station. This is not about blame. I am not going to presume that prompt medical attention will always make a difference but prompt, competent attention will inspire confidence in the whole organization. We’ll never be able to eliminate the risk of serious injury. But we can provide those people who fall victim to tragic incidents with the best chance possible to get through it.

Hiring trained contractors is one route, but probably fairly expensive for a whole tournament. Rather, providing in-house training (such as the above) to NSK staff would not an insurmountable hurdle, especially as some staff are already CPR and AED trained. I mean, there is a clinic on the premises. With some foresight, this should be a relatively low-hanging fruit for modernization possibly career training for wrestlers after retirement, and certainly would help avoid scaring away fans…but most importantly for reducing the risks faced by every wrestler (and some of the bystanders).

Personally, I think the biggest hesitation is that it would require someone to be responsible for leading when such events happen. Who should it be? I have no idea and I don’t think it could be foisted on anyone involuntarily. And rather than trying to shame or blame and point fingers on the interwebs (that clearly doesn’t work as I’ve been apoplectic about this several times) I wonder what it would cost to get a plan going, and get some annual training, I would certainly contribute to that. Let’s get it done.

10 thoughts on “安全第一

  1. 100% agree. The situation looks bad no matter how you look at it. Hibikiryu is a young man taking part a professional sporting event. It’s inexcusable to not have injury procedures in place and trained medical professionals ready at all times. I can only hope that Hibikiryu recovers and that this will be the moment things begin to change for the better. Personally, I love watching sumo. But if something will ever cause me to stop following the sport it will be the horrible medical care wrestlers receive. I remember back when Tomokaze had his severe knee injury but was forced to get up on his own, I was so disgusted that I lost interest in the rest of the tournament.

    • I agree with you, just want to add a piece I believe to be important: it is (among other things) a professional sporting event, and yet, most of the guys aren´t payed professionals. This is what blows my mind really. Hibikiryu, as a Sandanme rikishi, is basically fighting for the chanko, and like him the vast majority of these guys.
      So you have the Yokozuna and Ozeki, who I suppose have decent incomes, the Juryo fellas who have a working-man salary (they can lose from a basho to the other), and below all the unpaid fighters. Grand Sumo basically thrives on volunteering.
      To me this is all very well and good, I even like the fact that it´s not all about the money, at least for most of the people… but at least they should care about their fighters health… at the very very least!

  2. Probably time to set the scandal meter back to zero since the treatment of this injury was scandalous. I agree with your sentiments, Andy. I also think that, in addition to the reluctance to change the way things are traditionally done, which is a characteristic of many business venerable enterprises, particularly in Japan, financial concerns weigh heavy on the NSK these days. However, these athletes are crucial to what the NSK sells to the public–no rikishi, no sump–and so I think that there is some hope that proper medical care, both general and in emergency situations, might eventually displace the warrior ethos and tradition concerns that seem to militate against such care if only because the loss of popular rikishi is damaging to the bottom line. Imagine how proper first aid for dohyo injuries, nutritional care to offset the ravages of the traditional sumo diet and engaged sports medicine physicians and physical therapists would extend the careers of the most popular wrestlers. If such care were in place 10 years ago, it is likely that some of the recent retirees and currently injured rikishi might be fighting this weekend. It was this realization that caused professional sports leagues in the US and Europe (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and the major British and European football clubs) to provide the finest available care to their athletes. As you note, perhaps this recent event will cause the NSK to at least do the right thing for itself and it’s people.

    • Saying things like “The NSK should provide the same medical care as the NFL” is a bit silly. the NFL pulls in nearly 2 trillion JPY of revenue per year. How much does the NSK pull in?

      • The NFL needs to find medical staffs for 32 locations, 16 each week. The NSK currently needs to fill only one. It’s not that hard to find a suitable MD who is a fan and give him a seat beside the boys announcing kimarites.

        • Not to mention that the NSK is doing so little at the moment, even anything free or low cost that they can do now (like inviting a trauma specialist to give some first aid tips to oyakata and sewanin) would be a 100% improvement over the current situation.

      • With COVID, the NSK financial situation is quite challenged, as has been reported in the Japanese media. They’re saddled with large debt. However, Japan is also a country with government health care, the US is not. I’m sure the NFL is paying for all the trainers, paramedics, etc…for the fans and players. Regarding wrestlers, I’m sure that their treatment costs are not entirely a burden of the NSK and the heya but it’s not going to be a drop in the bucket, either.

  3. Great, detailed article Andy. You’ve said pretty much everything there is to say about it, these images are gut wrenching. the way this poor fellow was handled, knowing he’s hurt his neck, and the overall lack of urgency of everyone involved is baffling. And infuriating. And nauseating. 3 minutes face down in the clay! I pray for Hibikiryu.

  4. Pretty sure that we were assured of a ringside MD at all future events after the mayor toppled over mid-speech during the jungyo a few years ago. But the only thing anyone remembers from that incident is the gender of the people who sprang into action when nobody else would.

  5. Well said, Andy! The response to Hibikiryu’s spinal injury is just…mind-blowing. I’ll keep it very short and say that something has to be done for goodness sake!


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