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Japan's Sport of Sumo Wrestling Slammed by Scandal

Japan's ancient and national sport, sumo wrestling, has suffered a fall from grace. Admissions by numerous wrestlers that they bet on baseball games, some using organized crime bookies, is at the heart of a unfolding scandal.

For fans of Japan's hallowed sport, it has been difficult during the current Grand Sumo Tournament in Nagoya to follow the action on the airwaves.

Sumo's disgrace has compelled the national quasi-official broadcaster NHK to cancel live coverage and air only highlights of selected matches after midnight.

It has been the action outside the dirt ring that is overshadowing the actual competition.

The baseball betting scandal has resulted in several top wrestlers coming under criminal investigation. One former top-level wrestler is under arrest. The sumo association's chairman has been suspended and replaced by a former public prosecutor. And some competitors under scrutiny have been pushed out of the current tournament.

The National Police Agency and sumo's official body declined repeated requests for interviews about the links between the sport and members of organized crime, known as yakuza.

An expert on the yakuza, American Jake Adelstein, who is the author of the book Tokyo Vice, tells VOA News these revelations linking sumo and criminals come as no surprise to him.

"Many of the smaller sumo stables cannot survive without yakuza sponsorship. They don't have corporate sponsors," said Adelstein. "There's always been a kind of tradition of yakuza bosses chumming around with the sumo wrestlers and basically taking them out to dinner, giving them spending money and in exchange they get the benefits of having a huge sumo wrestler to hang out with them and show their prestige."

The police crackdown is mainly targeting the Kodo-kai, a Nagoya-based group with many ethnic Korean members and considered especially fearsome and ruthless. It is part of the syndicate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's most powerful yakuza group.

The backlash against the Kodo-kai came after some of its members were seen on national television at last year's Nagoya sumo tournament, occupying some of the best seats.

Former Yomiuri newspaper crime reporter Adelstein says this violated an unwritten rule of Japanese society that yakuza should stay out of the limelight.

"That was kind of a slap in the face to the police and not to mention that the Kodo-kai had actually been intimidating police officers," added Adelstein. "I think it's at that point, when they became very aware of that connection in public where people could see it, that they decided it was time to, basically, break their nose and take them down."

Further compounding sumo's trouble are recent incidents involving the huge athletes getting into drunken fights in nightclubs and restaurants, drug use, alleged extortion and the fatal hazing of a teenaged wrestler.