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Japanese sumo wrestler fired over marijuana

February 2, 2009

A sumo wrestler was expelled from the ancient Japanese sport on Monday following his arrest for marijuana possession and just a day after U.S. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps apologised over a photograph purportedly showing him smoking the drug.

The expulsion of Wakakirin, 25, comes after three Russian wrestlers met a similar fate last year over marijuana use, reflecting both Japan’s zero tolerance for the drug and the high standards of behaviour the Japan Sumo Association prides itself on demanding from its members.

Musashikawa, the chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, bowed deeply and apologised for the scandal at a televised news conference where he announced the decision to fire Wakakirin.

In contrast, U.S. officials said the news about Phelps was disappointing, but stressed that smoking marijuana out of competition was not an anti-doping matter at this point.

Wakakirin, whose real name is Shinichi Suzukawa, was arrested in possession of marijuana in the Tokyo nightlife district of Roppongi last week, police said. Daytime television chat shows said the 25-year-old was a hiphop fan and broadcast pictures of him wearing black clothing and heavy gold chains, in contrast with the traditional sumo get-up of cotton robes or silk loincloths.

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Statistics indicate that marijuana use is relatively unusual in Japan compared with the United States and Britain. Individual cases of possession are frequently covered on national television news, especially when they involve someone in the public eye.

The Sumo Association enforces strict rules for wrestlers. Last week the sport’s authorities were muling disciplinary action against Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu for a breach of etiquette after he raised his arms in a gesture of triumph when he won the New Year’s tournament.

But more serious problems, in particular the fatal beating of a young wrestler by fellow members of his sumo stable in 2007, have threatened to undermine the sport’s standing. A dearth of Japanese recruits has led to a rise in the number of foreigners in the top echelons of the sport, a development decried by some conservatives.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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