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Judo's big fight
Current
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Judo's big fight

Posted 11.12.2012
By Barnaby Chesterman

Judo has come a long way since it evolved, over a century ago, from jiu-jitsu, a fighting style that originated on the battlefields of feudal Japan. Now that it’s firmly established as an Olympic sport, gone are the weapons, kicks, punches and leg-locks; anything, in fact, designed to cause excessive pain or death. Instead, what remains is an elegant and artistic sport marked with chivalry, respect and grace.

By the end of the 19th century, hand-to-hand combat was a dying art on the battlefield, with increasingly sophisticated weaponry rendering it almost obsolete. This was when jiu-jitsu specialist, Dr Jigoro Kano founded judo by transforming his deadly martial art into a safe and controlled sporting activity; something more practical and useful for every day life. He took out striking and some of the most dangerous joint-locks, and brought in foot-sweeps that allowed a thrower to control the fall of the person whose balance he had just whisked away.

130 years on, and there is a different sort of revolution sweeping through the sport that Kano created. This time the motivation is not safety and practicality, but instead universal interest and public attraction. Since Romanian-born businessman Marius Vizer took over the International Judo Federation (IJF) in 2007, he has been trying to drag his sport into the 21st century.

 

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Before his arrival, the popularity of judo in its biggest market – Japan – had been waning. In France, its secondary market, it wasn’t a widely viewed or appreciated activity. So Vizer fearlessly swept aside the concerns of the traditionalists – mostly from Japan – who resisted change, pushing through an ambitious publicity plan. Now, according to the IJF communications officer Nicolas Messner, the last judo world championships were shown live in 130 territories worldwide; quite an impressive spread.

Before Vizer’s reign, previous president Park Yong-Sung had already introduced blue judo suits ( judogi), aimed at making the sport more attractive and understandable to television audiences. Rather than a whir of two bodies, draped in white, flying through the air, now one fighter wears blue and the other white, making identification easier and the sport more accessible for spectators.

Vizer has made his own changes. He’s done away with one of the four scores awarded for a successful technique, changed the style of the scoreboards to make them clearer to the layman and also, perhaps most significantly, banned techniques that resemble wrestling.

Whereas previous modifications had brought consternation from traditionalists at the Kodokan – the home of judo in Japan – this latter rule change was greeted warmly. By purging judo of the leg-grabs, dropping and sacrificial techniques popular in wrestling – a style dominated by Russians, Iranians and Caucasian countries – pure, classical judo has been allowed to flourish once again. And there are none better than the Japanese when it comes to performing the oldest throws, those preferred by Kano himself.

It has also made for more spectacular and attacking judo, something that has pleased television executives. According to Messner, at the 2009 world championships in Rotterdam, 35 per cent of fights ended in a move called ippon, the equivalent of a boxing knockout. “That figure had risen to 60 per cent last year at the Paris Worlds,” Messner adds. “In some categories it was as high as 75 to 80 per cent. The Japanese have benefitted as they can do their style of judo again. It’s attacking, it’s spectacular. Techniques that had disappeared have reappeared.”

So the sport of judo is changing yet again. But this time, both the modernisers and the traditionalists seem to be content. Vizer may just have managed to find a happy medium.

Article originally appeared in Play magazine.