Japan's Sumo Mired in Drug Scandal

Posted by: Kenji Hall on September 8, 2008

Drug scandals in the sporting world aren’t uncommon these days. Usually they’re about athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs to get an unfair advantage, as was the case at this year’s Beijing Olympics and Tour de France. Now Japan’s ancient national sport, sumo, is being rocked by a different type of brouhaha over drugs.

This one involves two brothers from Russia whose alleged use of marijuana has ended their sumo careers and led to the resignation of the Japan Sumo Assn.’s top official.

The brothers, who compete in the top pro division as Roho and Hakurozan, tested positive for the drug during sumo’s first-ever drug screening. The tests on dozens of top-ranked wrestlers were ordered after Wakanoho, who is also from Russia but competes in a lower division, was arrested last month and later banned for allegedly possessing marijuana.

Japanese media reported that police have questioned Roho and Hakurozan; the two have repeatedly said they didn’t smoke marijuana and even welcomed the drug-testing. (Possessing and selling marijuana are illegal in Japan, but smoking it isn’t.) Ultimately, tests on the two performed by a lab showed high amounts of marijuana, ruling out the possibility that they had merely inhaled second-hand smoke and forcing the Japan Sumo Assn.’s action.

The scandal is a big deal in Japan because sumo, which has its roots in Shinto religion and receives funding from the government, prides itself in holding up its athletes to higher moral standards than other sports. It will be a while before the sport can recover, if it ever does.

In a show of contrition, the head of the sumo association, former grand champion Kitanoumi, announced that he was stepping down.

The media spectacle--the TV cameras, the strobe flashbulbs of cameramen, the trail of harried reporters following their every move--has amounted to a public flogging for the accused wrestlers, their stable heads and sumo association officials. No doubt, sumo higher-ups hope to dodge public calls for a shakeup of this most closed of Japanese sports. The intense scrutiny has forced them to take extraordinary steps, such as the drug tests, that would have been unheard of before.

It’s hardly the only bad publicity for sumo, lately. Last year, the sport’s training practices came under fire after the head of a sumo stable, or training gym, was arrested for allegedly beating a young wrestler. The 17-year-old wrestler, who had run away from the stable, later died of his injuries. Also last year the sport’s top-ranked wrestler, Asashoryu, was suspended for feigning an injury and playing in a charity soccer match in his home country of Mongolia.

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