A Japanese sumo wrestler has died a month after suffering a concussion during a bout, as the ancient sport’s authorities come under renewed pressure to rethink their outdated approach to head injuries.
Hibikiryu, a 28-year-old rikishi in one of the lower divisions, died from acute respiratory failure, the Japan Sumo Association said, despite earlier showing signs that he was recovering from his injuries.
Sumo fans reacted with horror after the wrestler, whose real name was Mitsuki Amano, landed on his head during a bout in late March and was left lying in the ring for several minutes before being given medical assistance.
He was eventually stretchered away and taken to a hospital in Tokyo where he was treated for a spinal injury. Reports said he had complained of numbness in the ambulance. Yahoo Japan said his condition had quickly deteriorated on Wednesday.
Sumo fans paid tribute to Hibikiryu on Twitter, with many critical of the the time it took to give the wrestler medical help.
“So sad … I hope this underscores the need for reform in ringside emergency medical care for rikishi,” one user wrote.
Another supported calls for reform, amid evidence of a possible link between concussion in sport and serious health problems, including dementia, later in life: “It was disgusting to see him left lying face down unable to move as others continued around him,” one user wrote. “I truly hope sumo brings in major medical changes now”.
The sumo association’s chairman, Hakkaku, said in a statement: “All members of the association express their deepest condolences. He fought hard like a true rikishi with the help of his family and doctors. Now I would like him to rest in peace.”
Doctors are present at sumo tournaments, but they are not positioned ringside, an arrangement that came under scrutiny earlier this year when Shonannoumi collapsed after clashing heads with his opponent. The 22-year-old eventually struggled to his feet and won his bout.
Days later, the sumo association said it would allow judges to withdraw a concussed athlete from the ring, with his opponent declared the default winner – a policy critics say encourages wrestlers to fight on even when they are concussed.
The impact of concussion in sports such as football and rugby has come under increasing scrutiny after evidence revealed in 2019 by Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow that players in those sports are at a higher risk of suffering brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition first identified in American footballers.
Hibikiryu is thought to be the first rikishi to have died from injuries sustained in the ring. His death came almost a year after Shobushi became the first active wrestler to die, after he contracted Covid-19.