Sport

A Concussion, a Death and Calls to Reform Sumo Wrestling

A 28-year-old wrestler died from acute respiratory failure a month after suffering an injury to his head during a match.
May 3, 2021, 3:21pm
Two sumo wrestlers in the ring while the refree stares on
Photo by Bob Fisher via Unsplash

During a match, a young sumo wrestler named Hibikiryu landed on his head after being thrown by his opponent. Then he was practically motionless for five minutes.

The viral video of the bout on March 26, showed how the 28-year-old lower-tier wrestler, whose real name was Mitsuki Amano, moved his head a little as he lay on the ground for several minutes before being taken to a hospital in Tokyo. The video caused widespread shock and outrage.

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Just over a month after his injury, Hibikiryu died from acute respiratory failure on April 30. 

His death has sent shockwaves in the sumo community and sprung up debates on sport reform. According to media reports, no doctor was present around the ring during the fatal fight, a fact that has angered fans.  

Doctors are usually present at sumo tournaments but not along the ringside. In the past, women doctors have been criticised for stepping in the ring since they’re considered “unclean”. It’s customary in sumo fights that the wrestler gets up on his own after falling but after Hibikiryu didn’t move, those around the ring gathered to move him. Japanese media outlet Nikkan Sports reported that the wrestler could speak after his accident but was unable to move his body from below the neck and complained of numbness in the ambulance.

Hideo Ito, an acupuncturist and massage therapist who has been treating sumo wrestlers for two decades, said Hibikiryu may have damaged his spine when he fell. “He was a wonderful wrestler who always had a kind smile and was always thoughtful of others,” Ito told AFP, calling for doctors to be on standby at each bout.

Fans were devastated and shocked after the news of his death. Some of them were expecting him to get better since Japanese media outlets had earlier reported that he was regaining his strength. 

Hibikiryu’s death has also led to several fans demanding better healthcare and facilities for wrestlers participating in this ancient Japanese sport, which originally was part of a Shinto religious ritual. “So so sad… I hope this underscores the need for reform in ringside emergency medical care for rikishi,” one Twitter user wrote. “Rikishi” is the Japanese term for a sumo wrestler.

The sport has been criticised in the past for failing to prevent injuries and concussions. In February this year, sumo wrestler Shonannoumi had a concussion during a fight but signalled that he’d like to continue the fight. He went on to win the bout. 

For some, this was a symbol of heroism and courage. But after Hibikiryu’s death, fans are left wondering about the lack of protocol in sumo matches. Days after Shonannoumi’s win, judges ruled that a concussed athlete can be removed from the ring with the opponent being declared the winner. However, critics have argued that this move can further push wrestlers to fight even when they’re concussed.

After Hibikiryu’s injury, fans came up with a campaign asking the Japan Sumo Association to install better injury protocols. The campaign also started a GoFundMe page for the late sumo wrestler’s family which has gathered £1,300 ($1,799) so far. The chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hakkaku, said in a statement: “All members of the association express their deepest condolences. He fought hard like a true rikishi with the help of his family and doctors. Now I would like him to rest in peace.”

Chris Sumo, a sumo wrestler, commentator and author, expressed shock and dismay at Hibikiryu’s death on his YouTube channel. In a video, he describes Hibikiryu’s death as a result of a cultural set-up and the system that brought him up. “How did a young man die as a result of a sumo match? A lot of people in Japan are being very slow to answer that question which I think tells you much about the wider issues,” he said. 

Sumo explains that Hibikiryu’s injury was so fatal that he would’ve still struggled even if he were alive and received medical assistance on time. “Even perfect assistance would’ve left him in a fight for his life,” he said. “We need to change the attitude of ‘He’s a rishiki, he’s going to be okay.’ This is where the Sumo community has gone wrong.”

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