By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japan Sumo Association apologized on Thursday after female medics were asked to leave a sumo ring where they were treating a local official who had collapsed.
Kyodo news agency reported that Maizuru city mayor Ryozo Tatami collapsed while making a speech in a gym near Kyoto on Wednesday and after several women rushed to help the prone official a referee repeatedly asked them to leave the dohyo.
Tradition forbids women from entering the ring on the grounds that it is sacred and their presence, considered "unclean", would pollute it.
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Tatami was eventually taken to a nearby hospital and his life was not in danger, according to city officials.
The sumo association's newly elected chairman Hakkaku apologized for the incident and thanked the women.
"It was an inappropriate response in the life-threatening situation. I deeply apologize," Hakkaku said in a statement.
The action of the referee has drawn sharp criticism from some sections of the Japanese media, including sumo wrestling journalist Taro Arai.
"I think it is all right for women to get on the ring when there is a reason to do so," Arai told Reuters. "There is no historical ground or reason at all why they cannot."
Arai, who supervises the Sumo Fan magazine aimed at the sport's growing female fanbase, said it was not the first time females had been allowed onto the sumo ring.
"In the past, there have been cases where little girls got on the ring and wrestled with sumo wrestlers in sumo fan events," he stressed.
"So, in fact, women on the ring has been approved by the Sumo Association (previously)."
The incident comes at a difficult time for sumo in Japan. The ancient sport has been plagued by a series of scandals in recent months.
Hakkaku is attempting to rebuild his sport's tarnished reputation, after former yokozuna – the highest ranking in the sport – Harumafuji retired in December after assaulting a junior wrestler.
In February, Japanese police said they had referred a sumo wrestler to prosecutors on suspicion of indecent assault and last month Egyptian wrestler Osunaarashi was asked to retire after being involved in a car accident while driving without a license.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Additional reporting by Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Sudipto Ganguly)