In Japan, sumo isn’t just a sport. It is almost a religion with its stars hailed as Demi Gods. But it’s a world closed to outside influence, where scandals are immediately covered up, women are considered unclean and the parents of students are asked not to visit their children for years. We gained exceptional access to this closed world.
Sumo is the only sport in the world where professional athletes live together 24 hours a day, in schools known as Ecuries. Life in an ecurie is strictly hierarchical, with younger students expected to clean up after the senior ones. The day starts at 6.30 am with two and a half hours of training. Then hours of cleaning, followed by a large meal and siesta and the sequence is repeated. It’s a quasi monasterial life that leaves no time for girlfriends or other interests.
Women are traditionally regarded as unclean and banned from entering the sacred sumo dohyo ring. But this interdicition was taken to extremes in April 2018, when female firstaiders trying to revive a stroke victim who had collapsed in the dohyo were ordered to immediately leave the ring. The event made headlines around the world and the sumo association was forced to apologise.
But most scandals in the sumo world are effectively covered up. In 2007, a 17 year old student was beaten to death at an ecurie after he tried to run away. Even though his body was covered with bruises the police accepted the school’s explanation that he had died from overtraining and closed the case. It was only a second investigation by the victim’s family that revealed the truth.
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