September 8, 2008 / 7:44 AM / 10 years ago

Japan sumo chief resigns over marijuana scandal

TOKYO (Reuters) - The head of Japan’s sumo association resigned on Monday after a young wrestler at his gym was accused of smoking marijuana, the latest in a string of scandals to hit the ancient sport.

Sumo wrestlers take part in a joint practice for the Yokozuna Deliberation Council in Tokyo April 29, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“I caused trouble to the sumo association and to fans, so I have resigned,” Kitanoumi, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), told a news conference after a meeting of the sport’s top officials.

Two Russian wrestlers tested positive for marijuana last week, setting off a media frenzy about abuses in the sport, which historians say dates back 2,000 years and which makes much of its respect for tradition.

Hakurozan, who trains at Kitanoumi’s gym or “stable”, and his brother Roho, both denied smoking the drug. The positive test results came shortly after another Russian wrestler was arrested and fired for suspected marijuana possession.

Both Roho and Hakurozan have been expelled from the sport, an official said.

Kitanoumi, a grand champion “yokozuna” until he retired in 1985, had been facing growing criticism for the marijuana incidents and other recent scandals that have dented the sport’s popularity.

Last year, the head of another stable was arrested on suspicion of assault leading to the death of a teenage trainee who had talked about quitting. The case sent shockwaves across the country as the boy’s father spoke of his son’s battered body.

It shone a spotlight on sumo’s harsh training practices and the closed, rigid society of the male-only sport in which wrestlers wearing only loincloths tussle in a rope-lined dirt ring.

Still retaining many traditional Shinto religious overtones, sumo’s pageantry and carefully choreographed ring-entering rituals play almost as big a role as the bouts, which sometimes last only seconds.

Fans dismayed by the scandals say changes are needed. Japan’s top government spokesman urged the JSA board, now a clique of former wrestlers, to bring in outsiders to improve management.

“The sumo association needs to reconsider the situation now in which someone cannot be an executive unless he is a former wrestler,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference.

In another scandal last year, one of the sport’s highest-ranked stars, Asashoryu, sparked an uproar when he was filmed playing in a charity soccer match in his native Mongolia after pulling out of a tour in Japan citing a back injury.

Reporting by Chisa Fujioka; editing by Roger Crabb

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