Sumo tournament begins in empty arena amid virus fears

Kyoko HASEGAWA
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The Grand Sumo Tournament in Edion Arena, Osaka, is taking place without spectators due to the coronavirus outbreak

Sumo's spring tournament began behind closed doors on Sunday, the latest big event in Japan to be hit by the coronavirus less than five months before the Tokyo Olympics.

The Japan Sumo Association said last week spectators would be barred the tournament in Osaka from Sunday until March 22, as the virus has infected at least 454 people across Japan and been linked to seven deaths.

On Sunday, public broadcaster NHK carried two hours of live programing from the tournament.

"This tournament without spectators would be an extremely hard one for sumo wrestlers as they struggle to focus their minds," Sumo Association chairman Hakkaku said in his welcoming address.

"Even so, all wrestlers I'm sure will perform their best," he added.

Viewers could hear sounds usually drowned out by spectators, including that of the wrestlers slapping their bellies and wiping their feet in the ring.

Some sumo rituals were also amended, including the traditional ladle of water that a winning wrestler offers to the next in the ring.

Sumo stars have already been taking precautions at fan events, refraining from shaking hands and wearing surgical masks, while a ceremonial visit to a local shrine was cancelled.

The viral outbreak across Japan and dozens of other countries has fuelled concerns about the Summer Olympics, which open on July 24.

On Wednesday, Tokyo 2020 organisers said they may have to scale back the torch relay and limit spectators because of concerns over spreading the virus.

- Temperature checks -

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, however, insisted that the nightmare scenario of either cancelling or postponing the Tokyo Olympics was not discussed at a key meeting last week.

The no-spectator sumo tournament comes after the government’s request to operators of sports and entertainment venues to consider cancelling or postponing mass gatherings to help prevent the spread of the virus.

All wrestlers will have their temperature checked twice a day, sumo association board member Koichi Oguruma said.

Before the tournament, yokozuna grand champion Kakuryu said: "I can't imagine what it's like" to perform without spectators.

"I'll do my best, thinking many people are cheering in front of TV," he added.

Takakeisho, a lower-ranked wrestler added: "A sumo wrestler's performance is made (in part) of cheers by spectators.

"But I have to win in this environment," he said before clinching his first bout.