Martial Arts in the Olympics: Has Inclusion in the Games Helped or Hurt Judo?

In case you live in a cave, here’s a news flash: 2016 is an Olympic year. The 31st Summer Games are scheduled to take place August 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro. Whenever the world’s premier sporting event rolls around, we find ourselves reflecting on how the Olympics have affected the martial arts.

Part 1 of this article examines whether the Games have been good for judo. For input, we interrogated Gary Goltz and Hayward Nishioka, prompting them with questions and hoping they’d offer opinions on other topics that are of concern to them and practitioners of their martial art.

— Editors

Gary Goltz (Photo by Peter Lueders)

ART: JUDO
ADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 1964
EXPERT: Gary Goltz, former president of the U.S. Judo Association, current board member of the Hal Sharp Judo Teachers Foundation

QUESTION: Is pre-1964 judo different from post-1964 judo?

GARY GOLTZ: Actually, a lot has changed since then. This started after World War II, when judo’s focus became much more on the sport aspect rather than the martial arts aspect. It had a lot to do with the occupation of Japan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s ban on the practice of all martial arts. The Kodokan set out to impress the American officers by showing that judo was a sport and a peaceful activity. When the Olympics came to Japan in 1964, they introduced it as an exhibition event. Back then, there were no weight divisions and no females. The only scores were the wazari (half point) and the ippon (full point). Matches lasted up to 20 minutes.

QUESTION: Did the imposition of rules for the Olympics change judo from a martial art to a martial sport?

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GARY GOLTZ: Olympic judo today is more driven by rules than ever before. Wrestling-type moves such as kata guruma (shoulder wheel) and morote gari (two-hand leg reap) are now illegal. This was to force players to use more standing techniques such as uchimata (inner-thigh throw), harai gosh (hip sweep), seionage (shoulder throw) and ashi waza (foot techniques). The goal was to look good on TV and differentiate judo from wrestling.

QUESTION: Has Olympic inclusion boosted the popularity of judo overall?

GARY GOLTZ: Judo’s popularity soared in most countries with the exception of the U.S. This was due to the national judo organizations’ insistence on maintaining their members’ amateur status to meet Olympic requirements at the time. Here, other martial arts — karate in the 1960s, kung fu in the ’70s, and then Brazilian jiu-jitsu and krav maga now — flourished in part because of the entertainment industry and successful commercialization methods.

QUESTION: Does being an Olympic sport help judo create stars?

GARY GOLTZ: Absolutely. There are many such examples in Japan, Korea, France, Brazil, Holland, England and even Cuba. The best example in the U.S. is Ronda Rousey, who took a bronze medal in Beijing and then left the sport to become the biggest female star of the UFC.

Kayla Harrison (left), on the other hand, is the only American Olympic judo athlete to take a gold but is far less well-known because she’s chosen to stay focused on judo and enter the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. This illustrates the dilemma faced by those who devote themselves to becoming Olympic champions. They may find that they have limited career options upon retirement.

QUESTION: Did judo lose anything of value when one portion of the martial art — competition — was added to the Olympic Games while other parts of it — such as kata and self-defense — were not?

GARY GOLTZ: When judo became an official Olympic event, competition became the priority. Kata have been made much more consistent over the last five years by the International Judo Federation, perhaps in an effort to eventually make it part of judo in the Olympics, too.

***

Hayward Nishioka (Photo by Rick Hustead)

EXPERT: Hayward Nishioka, 1967 Pan-American Games gold medalist, Black Belt’s 1968 Judo Player of the Year and 1977 Judo Instructor of the Year

QUESTION: How has judo changed since it was added to the Games?

HAYWARD NISHIOKA: Judo today is stronger, faster and tactically different due to the influence of the Olympics. The Olympic motto of Altius, Citius, Fortius (Higher, Faster, Stronger) seems to hold true for Olympic sport judo. One need only look at YouTube submissions to compare the old with the new. Where once weight, height, strength, cardio fitness, nutrition and specialized tactics took a back seat to waza, or techniques, they are now integral pieces of a total package. If you’re missing any one part of the equation, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. Now, all your bullets had better be hyper-packed with powder or you’re in trouble because everyone else comes fully loaded for war.

While the quest for excellence is an admirable goal and everyone wants to be a gold medalist, this was not the sole direction that Pierre de Coubertin or Jigoro Kano had intended for sports or for judo. Both were physical educators and came from wealthy families. De Coubertin knew the positive benefits of sport and wanted to use it to promote world peace. Kano believed that the practice of judo would develop better citizens. Unfortunately for them, the Olympic Games and judo have taken on a life of their own and gone in a different direction.

QUESTION: Did Olympic officials intentionally alter judo?

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HAYWARD NISHIOKA: The intent at the upper level of the International Olympic Committee is the thought that bigger is better. This is not to say that their higher goals have been displaced by the desire to make money. They have not, but it sure helps when funds are plentiful rather than sparse. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where millions were made, served as a model for running the Games. That’s when we saw professional marketing, increased sponsorships and increased costs to secure TV rights. Events had to change to meet the demands of TV sponsors who wanted more bang for their buck. They called for more action, more excitement and less downtime.

In an effort to adapt, judo changed its rules to make the game faster and more exciting — for example, encouraging an attack every 20 to 25 seconds, requiring the right size judogi to allow for attacks to be done and eliminating some excessive bowing practices.

So, yes, the Olympics forever changed the face of judo. It is no longer a martial art steeped in tradition and culture, which was valued by those searching for esoteric Asian answers. It’s now an Olympic sport driven by scientific training formulas for becoming a champion.

QUESTION: Did the Olympics make judo more popular?

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HAYWARD NISHIOKA: Judo people once said, “If judo is included in the Olympics, it will help make it popular.” It’s now in the Olympics, but judo is still not popular in the United States.

Later, people said, “If we have Olympic medalists, that will make a difference.” We’ve had several, but it hasn’t made a difference here.

Records indicate that there actually has been a per capita decline. For example, the U.S. Judo Federation has had a membership of 10,000 for the past 10 years. The second-largest organization is the U.S. Judo Association with 7,000 members. The smallest is the national governing body known as USA Judo, which has a membership of 5,000. In a country where the population has gone from 290 million to 330 million in the past decade, judo has not grown.

Contrast those numbers with France, which now has a population of 68 million and a judo membership of 600,000.

QUESTION: How else is judo in France different from judo here?

HAYWARD NISHIOKA: In France, judo is a household word. The country is home to many of the finest judoka in the world. Its current champion Teddy Riner is without rival. He just won the World Championship for the eighth consecutive time. No one even comes close historically or in the present. So although Olympic judo can create stars, unfortunately it does not in our country.

Nevertheless, the Games are a place where the ideals of developing a great citizen and a responsible person still prevail in spirit.

Hayward Nishioka’s book Judo Training for Competition: Coaching, Strategy and the Science for Success is on sale at Amazon. Order it here.

(To be continued with an examination of taekwondo before and after the Olympics.)