Thursday, 8 February 2007

Sumo Corruption Scandal

Thursday 8th January
Last week my good friend Chris Shannon sent me a link to an article in The Times about Mongolia's Sumo champ Asashoryu, who has been at the centre of allegations of match-fixing. Asashoryu, who is aptly described by Lloyd as swaggering into the ring "like a 23st loincloth-clad cowboy" is a big hero to Mongolians of all ages. They are proud of his phenomenal success, but also fond of his humorously bullying and irreverent attitude. Many people have told me with a smile how at the party held for his recent record-breaking victory, he punched celebrity guests who were reluctant to drink with him, and forced them to down their vodka.

The story is very big news in Japan, however even the article in the Times was considerably more in depth than the small piece that I had read in the UB Post. Curiously, when I asked my students and colleagues about the allegations, no one had heard them, in spite of many being very keen followers of the sport. In previous discussions concerning Mongolia's limited successes in the Asian Games and prospects for the Olympics, students have complained that competitions have been rigged against their country's favour. I am told that bribery is very common - in the early stages, at least - of the Naadam wrestling competition, with the lowest ranked wrestlers paying those of higher rank to take a fall.

Needless to say, these current allegations from Japan are treated by Mongolians with contempt and shocked outrage, and dismissed out of hand. Richard Lloyd's piece in the Times (there are several other articles by the same writer about Asashoryu's controversial career which make good reading, available at timesonline) points out that the details of the current accusations are "less than convincing" and quotes Sumo commentator Kunihiro Sugiyama on the possibility that the allegations are a "concoction by some of his many detractors":

“It’s possible — just because he is so strong. That creates jealousy. The fact that he’s a foreigner gives people a harder attitude towards him. But we have to face up to his great strength. At the moment Asashoryu is stronger than the Japanese.”

A colleague has just told me that Asashoryu has answered these allegations in the Mongolian press, and assured the Mongolian people that the story is false: "I don't have any interest to buy these rounds and the victories." Asashoryu has promised the Mongolian people that he will become the greatest Sumo Yokozuna of all time - a record that he is close to acchieving. The article that he has made this statement in is more concerned with Asashoryu's recent purchase of Ulaanbaatar's State Circus building. There are fears that the Yokozuna plans to abolish the circus and use the building to stage Sumo matches. Again, however, he reassures his people that he has loved the circus since visiting it in the 3rd grade, and has had a particular admiration for Mongolian circus entertainers since seeing them perform in Las Vegas last year.

I'll put my faith in Asashoryu's honesty, but I guess that the measure must be what happens to the dear old, decrepit State Circus - whether it blossoms as a showcase for the stupendous acrobatic talents that have long been a tradition of the Mongolian people (and for performing dogs and cats), or becomes instead the number venue in UB to see two large, sweaty men grunting and tugging at each others' mawashi.