McDonald’s helps keep Sumo off the ropes

Japan’s celebrated sport of sumo may be embroiled in a serious match-rigging scandal, but its ample-girthed wrestlers can still rely on support from the fast food restaurant chain McDonald’s.

The world’s largest hamburger chain by sales plans to keep sponsoring sumo bouts, despite reports of routine match rigging that have sparked harsh criticism from government leaders and prompted the cancellation of next month’s spring tournament.

While some corporate sponsors have pulled back, McDonald’s Japan said the chain would continue to sponsor the “national sport loved by the Japanese people”.

McDonald’s has more than 3,000 outlets in Japan, where it offers such localised treats as fried shrimp burgers as well as more Godzilla-sized calorie hits as the double quarter-pounder-and-cheese.

Such fare has made McDonald’s a target for activists in the US and elsewhere who want to reverse the worrying expansion of rich-nation waistlines. But the chain waves aside suggestions that supporting sumo’s well-padded contenders might strengthen any association of its brand with obesity.

“What we hear from customers is that they do exercise and they do have a balanced, active lifestyle, so I think in general that in Japan there is no such association,” the company said.

McDonald’s had already proved its loyalty after a series of scandals last year involving revelations of gangster-linked illegal gambling on baseball by wrestlers and the retirement of a reigning champion after a late-night brawl.

Since mid-2009, the burger chain has paid for 100 advertising banners at each Grand Sumo Tournament, even as the overall number of such banners plunged from more than 1,000 to just 242 at the July competition last year.

The banners, which cost Y60,000 ($729) each, are paraded around the ring before sponsored bouts, with most of the money going to the winning wrestler. At one fight last July involving current champion Hakuho, McDonald’s provided five of only six banners on offer. The company spends an average of $437,000 a year sponsoring the sport.

Other big Japanese sponsors such as food company Nagatanien and office equipment maker Fuji Xerox have resumed support for sumo after dropping the sport last year, but are now considering whether to stick by the wrestlers.

Other backers have lost faith. Shijimi-chan Honpo, a seafood company based in northern Aomori Prefecture, has announced that it will stop paying for five banners at Tokyo tournaments.

“We weren’t doing this for advertising, we were doing it because I really like sumo and wanted to give some financial support,” said Shuji Fukui, company president.

Mr Fukui is deeply indignant at reports that police have found mobile phone messages showing that some wrestlers routinely arranged the results of their fights.

“There was talk before that [match-rigging] might be happening, but this is different,” Mr Fukui said.

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