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The Japan Sumo Association is lowering its standards as fans abandon the ancient Japanese form of wrestling for other forms of entertainment. Match-fixing scandals, links to organized crime and the sport's failure to produce a home-grown Japanese superstar in more than a decade have seen sumo's popularity in Japan fall to an all-time low.
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The Japan Sumo Association is so desperate to attract new talent that it has lowered its recruiting standards, reducing height and weight requirements to attract new athletes.
Last month, only one wrestler applied to take sumo's entrance exam, meaning that only a total of 56 people took the test this year, the lowest figure in 54 years.
Athletes who were too short to make the height cutoff have traditionally gone to extreme measures to pass the examination. At one point the JSA had to ban the gruesome practice of skull silicon injections, after sumo wrestler Mainoumi had silicone injected into his scalp so he could meet the sport's 1.73-meter height requirement.
Sumo boasts a history that spans 1,500 years. Sumo wrestlers once performed in front of Japanese royalty, and as recently as a decade ago top sumo wrestlers were treated like superstars. But reports of drug use and other scandals involving sumo wrestlers, including last year's bout-fixing allegations, have tarnished the sport's image in recent years. And sumo faces competition from baseball, Japan's other national past time, and now soccer, which has exploded in popularity after the staging of the last World Cup in Japan and South Korea and the international success of Japanese footballers such as Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa.
But perhaps the biggest threat to the sport is its recent inability to produce a native Japanese champion, or yokozuna, since 2003. While the success of foreign-born stars such as the Mongolian Harumafuji have broadened sumo's international appeal, a Japanese yokozuna is needed to lure a new generation of Japanese fans.