COVID-19 Has Given Some Sumo Wrestlers An Impossible Choice

One wrestler's departure from the sport got plenty of attention

Sumo wrestling
People sit apart to observe social distancing while watching wrestlers perform a ceremony in 2020.
STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

The ways in which the pandemic has altered sports are widespread and wide-ranging, from goal celebrations in soccer to the possible cancellation of the Summer Olympics. A new report from Simon Denyer at The Washington Post makes a convincing case, however, that some of the pandemic’s most devastating effects have been felt by Japan’s community of sumo wrestlers.

The coronoavirus caused the death of wrestler Shobushi last year. Earlier this year, top-ranked wrestler Hakuho was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19. It’s left a number of wrestlers apprehensive about fighting, but it’s also placed them in a position where they may need to choose between having a future in their sport and preserving their health.

That’s not a metaphor, mind you. Denyer’s article tells the story of Kotokantetsu, who was forced to choose between leaving the sport and wrestling in a match he felt might expose him to the coronavirus. He opted to leave the sport, leaving him effectively blacklisted. Denyer notes that wrestlers cannot, under sumo association rules, transfer from one stable to another — meaning that once you’re out, you’re out.

It’s a situation that led sumo commentator Ross Mihara to compare the conditions facing lower-division wrestlers to “slave labor.” Kotokantetsu’s situation, which he explained on a YouTube video, has drawn more attention to these issues — especially the financial cost borne by young wrestlers and their families. Perhaps it might also start the process of reform within the sport.

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