Hanamichi: Sumo Dropped from World Games

Today’s Topic: Sumo’s Future at World Games

Sport is a great refuge from the complexities and animosities of the real world. Or so we would hope. Many of us pay attention to sport because it allows our minds to forget about the headaches of our day-to-day as well as the greater political debates which seem to constantly divide our societies. You might remember the coal miner whose story showed up all over the news media because he took his son to a basketball game fresh from work. But sometimes the heat of competition gets the better of those involved and generates real animosities and the conflict boils over.

Growing Sport

Sumo goes one step further than most sports to break these divisions since there are no teams. Sure, there are heya but that’s very different than a team, which competes together against opposing teams. We fans often support both wrestlers in a bout. In fact, we don’t have to support or follow any wrestler above the others and we can just revel in the competition itself. One competitor will be victorious and one will lose today, bow, and come back next time. So, sumo is an awesome sport and can even serve as a metaphor for those disappointments and defeats we have in life. Why has it not taken over the world?

Sumo actually has had a growing following over the past few years as we have seen with the growing number of podcasts and streams and the wealth of fan-generated content which is often too much to keep up with. As a rough way to quantify the growth, we see the Google Search trend really taking off after the pandemic. I extended this chart back to 2011 as that would probably be an appropriate “nadir,” and we may be seeing it really taking off recently. That is very encouraging.

The fact that amateur sumo is actually becoming “a thing” around the world is quite remarkable. There are amateur sumo clubs and tournaments around the world, from Texas to Norway to Argentina. Maybe one day neighborhood dohyo will be more common but people make do with ropes at beaches and pool noodles at the park. (Stickball, anyone?) Many aspire for it to eventually reach the Olympics. Great! But sadly, with very few exceptions, it is not coming to an arena near you.

This weekend we received news from Inside Sport Japan that sumo, as an amateur sport, has taken a bit of a hit. It was removed from the World Games after incidents at the Birmingham games last year — while other “sports” such as drone racing, breaking, parkour, lifesaving, and tug-of-war remain. That is definitely a bummer but thankfully it does not impact Ozumo, “Grand Sumo,” the primary subject of this blog, and it will hopefully not dampen the growth in enthusiasm for amateur sumo at the local level.

The Sport Takes a Hit

So, what happened last year? Well, quite a few things from this description of chaotic scenes from John Gunning. There’s certainly enough blame to go around, from fans to officials and commentators, wrestlers and coaches. The entire display was exceedingly unprofessional.

“These are amateur sports, Andy.”

I give myself serious side-eye on occasion. That’s not what I mean by “professional,” dude. In baseball, if you argue balls and strikes, you get tossed. You instigate in hockey, you’re gone. We know that. But sumo is infamous for its decorum. And clearly, in Birmingham, that decorum went out the window. In Ozumo, perhaps the most infamous and shocking scene over a referee’s call would be Hakuho’s abortive protest after his bout with Yoshikaze in November 2017.

Looking back, though, Hakuho’s actions and the aftermath are remarkably civil in comparison to the events in Birmingham and it is because of the the Kyokai. Hakuho did face considerable sanctions afterward and the episode continues to shape his relationship with the association, even today as an oyakata. This is where the organizer (the Kyokai) put their foot down and demonstrated to Hakuho that the sport is greater than him and is certainly more important than a decision over a matta.

There has to be a certain level of decorum. Remember, we fans are here to get away from the stressors of our daily lives. The sport does not exist for the competitors but for the fans. The stadium is built to house the fans, even when the seats were empty during COVID, it housed the cameras of NHK and Abema so that we could watch from home. So the unwritten rule imposed on the competitors — and organizers and fans — is to not stress us out. Get up on the dohyo, bow, and walk away — with the full intention of working harder to come back and win next time. And for the organizer, do it right. Bring us together, safely, so we can watch the spectacle and the drama unfold. The fans have their role, too, as the coal miner did not bring his son to get into a fight in the stands or have beer dumped on him because of escalation of petty rivalries or unwelcome decisions.

One of the incidents in Birmingham, that involving a Egyptian competitor and his coaches, is on this video below. Another involved a Ukrainian competitor who also celebrated his victory, this time by taking off the “UKR” badge at the front of his mawashi and holding it over his head.

As we can see from Abdelrahman Shalan’s reaction on Instagram, he has not learned the lesson that Hakuho did. These rules are not targeted to an individual or an ethnicity. The entire community needs to accept and abide by the rules. The rules were clear. No excessive celebration. A back flip, after being warned? And then the impudence of Abdelrahman Elsefy, to remain standing there, feigning incredulity, when the decision was not made in his favor. The rules of conduct are known and must be ingrained and reinforced from very junior stages of competition. It’s obvious that is not happening.

What made this situation so bad was the way it escalated. The judges even made decisions but then backed out of those decisions, policies were not adhered to, and neither were the policies of the International Sumo Federation. Cops were summoned, people kicked out, it was a mess. And that is certainly a mess which the World Games doesn’t want to continue next year. Cooler heads must prevail.

With such widespread disorder, the Federation looked terrible and unprepared for holding large, public events on the global stage. This decision may be traced back to these particular incidents but both are indications that the Federation is not ready. I am confident that this is a temporary setback and that those cooler heads will prevail. Hopefully, the parties involved in this will actually learn the lesson and be willing to participate by the rules in the future.


Sumo is not merely about the white stars, black stars, or even the occasional gold star. It’s not simply about the results of the action on the dohyo. It’s about the sport itself and its rules, as well as the culture, symbolism, and the people. It often involves the tawara, the manufacture of kensho banners, the conduct of wrestlers at the heya, and yes, sometimes politics and very uncomfortable conversations. To parse the two, Hanamichi will be a column reserved to delve into those topics and foster those uncomfortable conversations in a respectful, moderated environment.

9 thoughts on “Hanamichi: Sumo Dropped from World Games

  1. This is dumb. The celebration was far from outrageous, and Osunaarashi was well in his right when he said this was not grand sumo. Yes, rikishis are supposed to be stoic and dignified, etc. because it’s a plurimillenary tradition and religious ritual, but amateur sumo isn’t that. Even in Japan, it’s not unusual for non professional sumotoris to celebrate their victories in ways commonly seen in other sports and no one bats an eye. Yes, the dispute escalated, but can you imagine a coach seeing his athlete be disqualified for merely celebrating a victory in a perfectly civil way and not protesting in ANY OTHER SPORT? No wonder he was pissed.
    Seeing sumo get dropped just because some referee got overzealous is nothing short of stupid, and sad. I cannot comprehend how they went for that decision.

    • Where does the rule say anything about, “outrageous” celebrations? A back flip would be in my book of “outrageous” celebrations, though. The sport isn’t “grand sumo” but it’s their rules, not Abdelrahman Shalan’s. His argument has no validity. That’s like arguing a pass interference call in the Peach Bowl by saying, “this isn’t the NFL.”

      According to you, “Yes, rikishis are supposed to be stoic and dignified, etc. because it’s a plurimillenary tradition and religious ritual, but amateur sumo isn’t that.”

      That’s exactly the World Games’ point by dropping it. If its athletes, coaches, and fans aren’t going to accept the rules laid out, the sport’s gone! You’re making my point for me.

      “Yes, the dispute escalated, but can you imagine a coach seeing his athlete be disqualified for merely celebrating a victory in a perfectly civil way and not protesting in ANY OTHER SPORT?”

      Irrelevant, but in tennis just last month, a doubles team was disqualified because an errant shot hit a ball girl. So yes, “other sports, too.” That doesn’t change the fact that athletes and their coaches are supposed to follow the rules of the sport they’re playing, not the rules of a different league, or the rules according to a bloke who got kicked out for breaking the rules and trying to pass off blame to his wife. If the fans and the community are not willing to back the rules, then the sport should not be there. Period.

      • Very nice and timely reminder of where the current Abdelrahman Shalan, ex-Osunaarashi ,came from. He of all people should know that rules are rules and that non-adherence has consequences. Thank you for your post. I feel sorry for the global amateur sumo community.

      • A backflip is just a manifestation of joy, it’s not demeaning in any way. And it is certainly not hitting someone. Furthermore, yes, Abdelrahman’s argument has validity, because the expectation of stoicism is a thing in grand sumo, not in amateur sumo. That is the point. Never seen that stated anywhere, and as I said, you get very vocal celebrations even in Japan sometimes.

          • Irrelevant. If Takakeisho yells or does a back flip, it’s irrelevant to amateur sumo. Just as I said with my football example. The rules which are relevant are those which are being enforced by the governing body putting on the event. Just as NFL rules make no difference in a college or high school football game.

        • Take Japan out of it. Grand sumo/Ozumo is entirely irrelevant. The judges were there to enforce the rules according to the governing body at the venue. Did they have tabi socks or salt and power water? No. They wore white outfits and bowties. They’re different rules.

          It has nothing to do with his opinion of rules in Japan or what he thinks they should be. His athlete had crossed the line in previous bouts and was warned they were enforcing their rules. The fact that they couldn’t get that straight made everything go off the rails. It’s clear that governing body wasn’t in charge of that dohyo. They had lost control. THAT’s the point.

  2. Andy, Thanks for the post. I didn’t know amateur Sumo was even in the World Games, much less just dropped. You made several, well thought out and backed with fact points (as usual),
    and I agree – no rules, no backing of the rules then what is the point?

    By the way, Job Well Done filling in for Bruce. Even though Bruce just blamed you for the RIkishi’s ability to beat Hokuseio! Love both of your senses of humor!

    • Oh, forgot to mention, I have been blamed for much worse. I think I’ve jinxed Takayasu and Takakeisho numerous times now. I’ll gladly take credit for destroying Hokuseiho-zumo.


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