Wrestler death puts spotlight on sumo's rigid ways

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TOKYO, Sept 28 (Reuters) The death of a teenage wrestler is casting a harsh spotlight on the closed, rigid world of Japan's ancient sport of sumo, already suffering from a furore over misbehaviour by a grand champion.

''This is a crucial time for sumo. We need to confront the issues with a stronger-than-ever sense of crisis,'' Takanohana, a former popular grand champion, said on a television programme.

Today, the education minister urged the Japan Sumo Association to review its spartan training methods after the 17-year-old wrestler died in unexplained circumstances.

Japanese media have reported that senior wrestlers were suspected of having beaten the novice wrestler, Tokitaizan, at the instructions of his ''stable master'' -- the head of the gym to which he belonged -- during sparring practice in June.

Tokitaizan died the same day, according to the reports. The sumo association said at the time that he had died from heart failure after a training session.

''It is deplorable. First, we want the association internally to create steps to prevent such a thing from happening again,'' Education Minister Kisaburo Tokai, whose portfolio also covers sports, told a news conference.

Sumo association Chairman Kitanoumi later visited the ministry and told Vice Education Minister Kenshiro Matsunami that the association would review its practice methods.

Former wrestlers have said novices are commonly put through tough training at the ''stables'' where younger wrestlers eat, sleep and train together.

Tokitaizan, whose real name was Takashi Saito, had run away from the stable twice, complaining of a lack of privacy, his father told a televised news conference on Thursday.

''He said to me, 'I'll be a good boy, so can you come pick me up.' I should have believed him, I regret that,'' Masato Saito said of the phone call from his son the night before his death.

''If he had said that he was being beaten, then I would have said, 'Escape to wherever you can.' I wish he had escaped,'' the father said, choking with tears.

TROUBLED SPORT The scandal has been one of the top items on TV news programmes.

Media reports said police have questioned the stable master and senior wrestlers about Tokitaizan's death.

A spokesman for the Aichi Prefectural Police, said to be in charge of the case, declined to comment on the reports. The stable master refused to answer reporters' questions when he appeared at a sumo association meeting on Thursday.

The stable could not be reached for comment today.

Tokitaizan's father said there were bruises on the son's body and what appeared to be burns. ''I couldn't look at it.... His body came home in such a condition, so I felt that there must be something wrong.'' The latest scandal comes after Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu sparked outrage by playing in a charity soccer match after having pulled out of a regional tour citing a back injury.

The sumo association in August slapped the firebrand ''yokozuna'' with a ban from two tournaments, and the wrestler was subsequently diagnosed for depression and returned to Mongolia for treatment, prompting some fans to call for his retirement.

Sumo, which some historians say dates back 2,000 years, has seen a decline in popularity, partly due to the absence of locally born yokozunas as young Japanese athletes shun the harsh life of the sumo world.

REUTERS SS VC1526

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