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.
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.
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.
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.