Sports

Somehow the Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Sumo Wrestling

The sport is still holding tournaments—and Americans desperate for something to follow (or bet on) are now fans.

Two sumo wrestlers competing in a mostly empty arena.
The Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka, Japan, on March 8. STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

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On March 22, 35-year-old professional sumo wrestler Hakuho Sho gripped 34-year-old Kakuryu Rikisaburo in a powerful bear hug, glided across the floor, and launched his opponent outside of the ring. That final bout, which lasted less than 30 seconds, won Hakuho his 44th top-division championship. No roar of the crowd accompanied his achievement, however, because the seats were empty. The 15-day tournament in Osaka, Japan, did not have an audience because of the Japan Sumo Association’s coronavirus precautions. “There was no atmosphere. Like everything else, you get used to it, but the first few days were very weird,” says Moti Dichne, who runs a popular YouTube channel devoted to sumo news. “You could hear everything. You could hear them fart, you could hear grunting, stuff you don’t usually hear.” The competitors arrived at the arena wearing face masks and had to apply hand sanitizer and undergo a temperature check before entering.

The very fact that a sumo competition was even held at the end of March was something of a surprise. By that time, the NBA had already suspended its season, the Boston Marathon had been pushed from April to September, and the NCAA had canceled all of its winter and spring championships. Nick Bogdanovich, U.S. director of trading at the bookmaker William Hill, says that his company decided to add sumo wrestling to its sports betting offerings because it was one of the few professional leagues still operating. “We scoured the globe for any sporting event that was still taking place, and sumo was one of them,” he said, adding that the company was unable to find any other sports happening in Japan, like baseball. “Whether it’s chess or Belarusian soccer or Nicaraguan baseball, we’ve tried everything. Literally everything.” Bogdanovich notes that, while it wasn’t quite as popular as Russian table tennis, which is also still being played, there was enough interest in sumo wrestling that William Hill planned to take bets on upcoming tournaments.

Sumo wrestling, which involves pressing flesh against flesh and breathing heavily into your opponent’s face, is exactly the sort of activity that public health officials are advising against during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet sumo competitions scheduled for the spring and summer have yet to be canceled or significantly postponed. There are six grand sumo tournaments every year, which take place in odd-numbered months; the Japan Sumo Association has pushed the upcoming May and July events back by a mere two weeks. “We don’t know why, of all the sports, sumo is the only one to still continue,” said Dichne. Indeed, Japan has postponed its professional baseball season indefinitely and pushed the Summer Olympics back until 2021.

Sumo originated as a harvest ritual in the eighth century, and later became a form of entertainment in Japan’s Edo period, which spans the 17th and 19th centuries. Nowadays it is a global sport, with Mongolian, Russian, and Samoan wrestlers all traveling to Japan to train. While baseball and judo are more popular among sports fans in the country, top sumo wrestlers are still household names.

The Japanese Sumo Association could ultimately scrap the upcoming competitions, as some fans are predicting, but even the possibility that these events could still happen seems bewildering given the ongoing pandemic. But much about the league has had to change. Wrestlers are still training, albeit without close contact. And the public can no longer attend matches, publicity events, or morning practices. “At the end of each tournament, they have these parties for fans that are basically big fundraising events. Those have all been canceled,” said Andy Martin, founder of the Tachiai sumo blog. “Unfortunately, their books aren’t open, so we can’t see how much it’s impacting them, but they’re probably hurting quite a bit from the lack of fan interaction.”

One factor in sumo’s favor right now is the lifestyle it imposes on wrestlers. Apart from the star players, most wrestlers live and train in group homes called stables and aren’t allowed to have much contact with the outside world. John Gunning, a writer who covers sumo for the Japan Times, posits that these athletes are effectively under quarantine conditions year-round already. “Because wrestlers share the same eating, sleeping, and living spaces, continuing with training would likely pose no additional risk,” Gunning wrote in a recent column, further contending that even if there are disruptions to the competition schedule, the league should be able to restart with ease. “Rikishi [sumo wrestlers] can maintain a more-or-less normal routine throughout the ongoing pandemic and not show a noticeable decrease in performance when tournaments resume.”

Nevertheless, the Japan Sumo Association did announce on April 10 that a wrestler at one of the stables had tested positive for the coronavirus. The association had previously said that it would discontinue the March tournament if a wrestler came down with the illness, but this wrestler seems to have contracted it after the event had ended. That the upcoming tournaments have not been called off despite this news could partly be because Japan itself has been slow to implement social-distancing measures. The government has closed schools and advised people to avoid crowds, but shops, restaurants, and workplaces still remain open. Japan has reported 11,496 coronavirus infections and 277 deaths; the numbers have been skyrocketing over the past month, particularly in Tokyo and other big cities.

The Japan Sumo Association operates under the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, so the league is likely to stay the course absent a government mandate. “Though I haven’t heard it said outright, I am sure the JSA is following the government’s lead on this one and waiting to hear what will be done nationally before it makes a move,” the proprietor of the sumo gear seller Sumo Soul wrote in an email. “The common wisdom is that though it is waffling to do so, that the government will extend, if not strengthen the restrictions put in place and the JSA will very likely follow suit and cancel the honbasho [tournament].” At which point, gamblers may have to turn their attention to South African horse racing and guessing the weather.