Sumo has always seemed a peculiar sport. Two behemoth-size men in loincloths rinse out their mouths with water, throw salt in a clay ring and ram their massive bodies against each other for a few seconds under the suspended roof of a Shinto shrine. "Mysterious. Religious. Philosophical." That's how retired wrestler Keisuke Itai describes sumo. But if accusations he is making are to be believed, it is a sport that is also full of cheaters.
Itai, 43, left the ring in 1991 but has stepped back into the sumo spotlight with charges that much of the flesh-to-flesh combat is mere show. In his day, he told TIME, 80% of the matches were fixed, with winner and loser worked out beforehand in the dressing rooms. "Match fixing was kind of matter-of-fact among the wrestlers," says Itai, a jocular, baby-faced giant. "None of us felt any guilt at all."
Here's how Itai says it worked. To maintain their ranking, wrestlers needed to win at least half their matches during a tournament--usually a 15-day affair that could involve a match a day for each wrestler. After the first few days, some wrestlers would have enough victories, making their next bouts meaningless. So they would "sell" those bouts to less successful wrestlers--deliberately losing in exchange for "points" to be collected at later tournaments. Poor-performing wrestlers with no points to redeem had to buy victories, paying about $2,000 each.
Rumors about sumo fixing have been around almost as long as the sport. Four years ago, a tabloid magazine in Japan ran a series of articles alleging yakuza (Japanese mafia) ties and match rigging. Making the claims then were two ex-wrestlers, who died suddenly within 15 hours of each other in the same Nagoya hospital and of the same respiratory ailment. Sumo is indeed filled with mystery. Itai is aware of the fate of previous whistle-blowers. One of the deceased wrestlers was his stable master.
So it was no wonder Japan was filled with rumors last week that after going public with his allegations, Itai was in hiding, fearing that gangsters with sumo ties had put out a contract on his life. "I'm not afraid! I'm not hiding!" Itai protested. The Japan Sumo Association, Vatican-like in its secrecy, and with a hammerlock hold on the sport, has always denied charges of match fixing. (It refused interview requests from TIME last week.) But Itai isn't going down lightly. He has produced tapes he surreptitiously made during sumo meetings in 1989 and 1991. They suggest that, contrary to the association's denials, the sumo kingpins knew all along what was going on.
On one of the tapes, given to TIME, a voice identified as that of one of Japan's highest-ranking sumo officials says, "Match rigging is a rationale to skip training and daily practice and sacrifices the fundamental nature of sumo. And when this is out in the public, it will threaten the existence of the Japan Sumo Association." Later the official directly addresses the wrestlers: "You wrestlers have a look on your face that says, 'What's the problem? This has been around for a long time.' But at some point, we need to put an end to this." Itai's allegations may be a start.
--By Tim Larimer/Tokyo