Sumo champion tests positive, worrying his stable and his sport
By Victor Mather
Cristiano Ronaldo was probably the most famous athlete to test positive for coronavirus. But a case could be made that the most dominant athlete to contract it is Hakuho, who learned Tuesday that he had tested positive.
Hakuho, Japan’s top-ranked sumo wrestler, is perhaps the best ever to compete in the ancient Japanese sport. At 35, he has won the six-times-yearly top-level championship a record 44 times, dwarfing the previous mark of 32 set by an earlier-era champion, Taiho, in the 1960s and ’70s.
In a statement released by Japan’s sumo association, Hakuho said he took a coronavirus test this past Sunday after noticing that he had lost his sense of smell. He had been expected to make a comeback in the first tournament of the year, scheduled to start Jan. 10, after having missed the previous two because of a knee injury.
Now he will miss it — if the event takes place at all. Concerned by rising case numbers, Japan’s government said Monday that it was considering declaring a monthlong state of emergency in Tokyo.
Sumo, which involves close physical contact and face-to-face interactions, would seem to be particularly fertile ground for transmitting the virus. Sumo wrestlers work out and often live together in small training groups, called heya, and Japanese officials said Tuesday that the rest of Hakuho’s stable would now be tested. Contact tracing will probably lead to quarantine periods for some other wrestlers and coaches, even if there are no more positives.
Last week, a coronavirus cluster was found at a different heya involving about a dozen wrestlers and support personnel, and a referee also tested positive. A fourth-tier sumo wrestler, Shobushi Kanji, died of complications of the virus in May at age 28.
One of the six top-level sumo tournaments was canceled last year, but the others proceeded, in some cases with fewer spectators and without the traditional offering of a ladle of water from a winning wrestler to the next one up.
The recent spike in cases has alarmed Japanese officials, who are considering a state of emergency in Tokyo for the first time since April, and it has led to new restrictions in the capital. Authorities Monday requested that restaurants and bars close by 8 p.m. to prevent further spread of the virus.
Tokyo reported a record high of 1,337 cases in one day last week, and the local government had already asked residents to refrain from all but essential outings at night. Companies have been encouraged to allow employees to work from home, and universities have been asked to move classes online.
Japan has reported more than 240,000 cases and more than 3,500 deaths linked to the virus, and it has endured several record-setting days in recent weeks. Last month, after recording the country’s first cases involving the more transmissible variant of the coronavirus that first emerged in Britain, the government closed Japan’s borders to foreign travelers.
“We should clearly recognize that the infection situation is in a completely different stage,” Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, said at the time.
The new outbreaks are an ominous development only months before the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed at the height of the pandemic last year. Japanese and international Olympics officials continue to insist that the Games, now scheduled to begin in July, will proceed as planned this summer.
Sumo is not on the Olympic program, but it is Japan’s national sport, with traditions that are hundreds of years old. But in recent years, more foreigners, especially Mongolians like Hakuho, have dominated it. Its top tournaments have also begun attracting more foreign fans, including President Donald Trump, who presented a trophy at an event in 2019.