TOKYO, Feb 6 (AFP) – Japan's sumo authority called off its spring tournament Sunday over a match-fixing scandal, in the first such cancellation in over half a century as the ancient and tainted sport reaches a new low.
The board of the Japan Sumo Association decided to scrap the March tournament in an emergency session as it tries to probe the extent of corruption in the sport, after three fighters confessed that bouts watched avidly by fans had been fixed in advance.
In a tearful press conference, association chairman Hanaregoma apologised for the debacle, saying he could not find adequate words to express his regret.
"Honestly, what I am about to say marks the darkest ever chapter in the long history of sumo," he told reporters, his voice shaking and tears welling up in his eyes.
"The Japan Sumo Association has decided to cancel the spring tournament scheduled for March," he said, adding that more time was needed to investigate the bout-fixing scandal and to explain to the public what had happened.
"Sincerely... I sincerely apologise," Hanaregoma said, as he stood up before cameras and bowed deeply at the start of a nationally televised press conference.
It is the first tournament cancellation since 1946, when the ritualistic sport's summer event was called off because of delays to the renovation of a sumo facility damaged during the World War II, Hanaregoma said.
In the latest scandal, at least three active sumo fighters have for the first time admitted fixing bouts. Eleven more wrestlers also came under suspicion, but have denied any involvement.
Japan's education minister, who supervises the national sport, on Thursday condemned the fixing as an "act of betrayal".
Match-rigging claims have long stalked sumo, which has its roots in Japan's native Shinto religion and dates back some 1,500 years -- but this is the first time wrestlers still active in the sumo world have confessed.
The sumo authority had previously taken legal action against journalists and others who reported cases of bout-fixing.
The latest scandal came to light last week after a newspaper revealed a police investigation into illegal gambling on baseball games, run by gangsters with bets placed by sumo wrestlers.
Police confiscated mobile phones from sumo fighters in the course of that probe, and discovered messages detailing arrangements for bout-fixing, which is not a crime but prompted fury among sumo fans.
The sport's cherished image of probity has collapsed following revelations of drug use, extortion linked to underworld gangs and the 2007 death of a trainee who had been bullied and subjected to violent initiation rites.
A few hours before Hanaregoma's press appearance, the government's top spokesman said sumo officials must respond to public doubts.
"It is their responsibility to the Japanese people to clarify what happened and take firm action," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.
"The situation does not allow them to hold a tournament if the facts of the matter are not clear and reprimands cannot be issued."
The cancellation could mean the loss of 1.3 billion yen (15.8 million dollars) in revenues for the cash-rich association, including 720 million yen in lost ticket sales, the Sports Nippon newspaper said.
This financial loss could inflate if individual ticketing agents demand compensation.
But the loss of public confidence could deal incalculable damage to sumo, with fans and the media voicing disgust and anger over the revelations.