Sunday, February 6, 2011, 5:51 p.m.
TOKYO (AP) -- The Japan Sumo Association called off its March tournament Sunday, the first cancellation in 65 years, as the country's ancient sport grapples with a match-fixing scandal.
Two wrestlers and a coach last week admitted to fixing bouts after police found text messages on confiscated mobile phones that implicated as many as 13 wrestlers in match rigging.
The latest scandal has rocked sumo, which is already reeling from a string of recent embarrassing incidents, including illegal gambling and drug use among wrestlers.
As a probe into bout-rigging got under way, the sumo association decided at an emergency meeting to call off the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament from March 13-27. The cancellation due to a scandal was unprecedented, it said.
"I am really, really sorry," JSA Hanaregoma told a news conference following the meeting, deeply bowing in front of the cameras.
Calling the cancellation "the biggest black eye in sumo history," Hanaregoma said the association would investigate the latest scandal thoroughly in order to regain public trust.
"Unless we thoroughly clear ourselves from the suspicion, we cannot hold sumo tournaments," said Hanaregoma, who repeatedly apologized during the news conference.
The last cancellation of a sumo tournament happened in 1946. But it was due to a delay in repairing work at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Japan's main sumo venue, which was damaged during World War II.
Sumo traces its origins to religious purification rites. Most Japanese see sumo wrestlers as the keepers of a prized tradition and expect them to observe a high standard of public behavior and wear their hair in topknots like the samurai of old.
The mobile phone text messages uncovered by police indicated that the wrestlers routinely fixed bouts and charged hundreds of thousands of yen (thousands of dollars) per match to do so.
A panel set up by the sumo association has launched a probe into the scandal. The association said the panel is investigating 12 wrestlers and two coaches in connection with the match-fixing scandal.
Japan's Asahi newspaper said canceling a sumo tournament could cost the association around one billion yen (12 million) in estimated ticket sales.
Last year, several wrestlers were arrested for betting illegally on baseball games, allegedly with gangsters as go-betweens. That scandal followed allegations in 2009 of widespread marijuana use among the ranks that led to the expulsion of three Russian fighters.
Rumors of ties between sumo wrestlers and the underworld have been rife, and the baseball gambling scandal deeply hurt sumo's image.
Unsubstantiated allegations of gangster involvement in bout-fixing have plagued the sport for decades, but have never been proved. There were no immediate reports of gangsters mentioned in the latest scandal.