The ideal of sport is a pristine competition in which skill and merit will determine the victor. Often, matches begin with the statement: “May the best man win!” Of course, the reality often falls short of that ideal — and in America, the NCAA spends a lot of its time trying to police the cheaters.
Cheating is not a problem that is limited to America. Pakistani cricketers are embroiled in a cheating scandal in which they are accused of (honest!) “bowling deliberate no-balls.” And Japan is being rocked by a sumo wrestling scandal. Thirteen senior sumo wrestlers are implicated in a match-fixing scandal that is so serious that the Japanese Sumo Association grand tournament has been canceled for the first time in 65 years. (This should not be wholly unexpected; years ago the book Freakonomics, by Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, postulated, based on a statistical analysis, that sumo involved rampant match-fixing.)
For Japan, however, the corruption in sumo is more difficult to accept than, say, an NCAA college football recruiting scandal. Sumo has its origins in ancient religious rites and has been an organized activity in Japan for centuries. It is generally viewed as Japan’s national sport. The scandal strikes at the heart of sumo and is so serious that even Japan’s prime minister has spoken out about it. He says that if match-fixing has occurred, “it is a very serious betrayal of the people.”
The reaction in Japan is probably akin to the reaction in America when people learned that the 1919 World Series was fixed. That was a more innocent time, when baseball was America’s undisputed national pastime and it was unimaginable that players would fix a game and betray their fans. I wonder if, somewhere in Japan, a young boy will go up to one of the accused sumo champions and cry out: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”