With Baku worlds as a springboard, judo on the rise

BAKU, Azerbaijan — These 2018 world championships underscored why judo already is one of the best sports in the Olympic landscape: easy-to-understand action, gender equity, universality, an honor code that promotes if not demands respect for each other as well as the rules and the sport. Further, when it comes to putting on the show itself, and this was richly evident here at what colloquially is called MGA Arena: the shine of world-class production values.

For those who don’t already understand the secret that Olympic insiders do:

Judo is rising fast. These championships, which wrapped up Thursday, were not just a showcase but a springboard. This whole thing is gonna take off over the next six years, and those years are likely just the start of something really big.

 Spain’s first-ever senior world champion, Nikoloz Sherazadishvili // photo IJF

Spain’s first-ever senior world champion, Nikoloz Sherazadishvili // photo IJF

Far too many of the more than two dozen sports on the Summer Olympic Games program are like the proverbial 40-year desert wanderers. Where are we going? What direction? How to get there? 

Judo has it figured out. It has stable leadership; International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer was re-elected last year to another term. It is pursuing a host of development strategies aimed directly at recruiting young people. It has in place an active social media and TV strategy, including with CNN. All that, and more, combined with the dynamic in-person experience helps explain why judo is poised, and particularly to and through the next two Summer Olympic Games, to light it up.

This is not hyperbole.

This is cold logic and common sense.

To be sure, every sport has its challenges, including judo. In the United States, for instance, judo has a long way to go — taekwondo dojos dot the American landscape even though it is judo that produced Olympic medalists turned MMA personalities Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison. The U.S. national team here? No medals.

Moreover, it is thoroughly unrealistic to expect judo to become the Olympic centerpiece that is track and field. But — it is 100 percent realistic to expect track and field, and a variety of other Olympic domains, to learn what judo is doing so right.

The peculiarly American conceit, meanwhile, is to not understand judo’s hold on the rest of the world — as an education tool, of course, as a sport and, thirdly, at the highest levels of government.

Judo’s connection with Vladimir Putin is well known and the president of the Russian federation surveyed the scene Thursday as judo has launched a teams competition in advance of Tokyo 2020, the Russians winning a bronze.

The host nation’s president, Ilham Aliyev, showed up any number of times at the championships.

The president of Mongolia, Khaltmaa Battulga, is the former head of the national judo federation. Battulga took in repeated success.

 At Thursday’s teams competition, from left: IJF president Marius Vizer; :Mongolian president Khaltmaa Battulga; Russian president Vladimir Putin; Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev // Getty Images

At Thursday’s teams competition, from left: IJF president Marius Vizer; :Mongolian president Khaltmaa Battulga; Russian president Vladimir Putin; Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev // Getty Images

On Wednesday, for instance, in the men’s plus-100 category, Mongolia’s Duurenbayar Ulziibayar defeated Czech Lukas Krpalek for bronze. It was his nation’s third medal. Ulziibayar dropped to the mat, faced his president and, on all fours, bowed in respect.

Tuesday’s men’s 100-kilo semifinals offered a snapshot into judo’s global reach:

— First, Mongolia’s Otgonbaatar Lkhagvasuren against Varlam Liparteliani of Georgia. The referee: a woman from Japan.

— Then, South Korea’s Cho Guham against Russia’s Niyaz Ilyasov. Ref: a male from Turkey.

In the final, South Korea’s Cho over Georgia’ s Liparteliani, in an epic match that went nine minutes.

These worlds featured 755 athletes from 124 countries.

Those numbers speak to both outreach and inclusiveness, and it’s in large part why judo was the hot ticket at the Rio Games in 2016, a total sellout with screaming fans at an Olympics where attendance at many other venues proved a serious issue, and why the sport already is positioned so well, even now, through 2024.

Where does judo have its roots? Japan. To reiterate: where is the next Summer Olympics? Tokyo. What are the big hits come 2020 almost surely going to be? Even with its issues, the Olympics are always track’s moment in the spotlight, and Japanese sprinters are up-and-coming. Swimming, for sure, and there’s a dynamite Japanese teen swimmer — teen Rikako Ikee won six medals at the just-concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.

And judo. 

The results here speak to the depth of the Japanese team: 16 individual medals, including the Abe siblings, Uta (sister, 52 kilos) and Hifumi (brother, 66 kilos), who won their categories on the very same day.

 18-year-old Uta Abe // IJF

18-year-old Uta Abe // IJF

 21-year-old Hifumi Abe // IJF

21-year-old Hifumi Abe // IJF

 Flanked by IJF officials, a united Korean team raises a white card Thursday as a symbol of peace // IJF

Flanked by IJF officials, a united Korean team raises a white card Thursday as a symbol of peace // IJF

As well: gold in the team competition Thursday, France taking silver — 2020 and 2024, as it were, lining right up.

The historic team takeaway, of course: North and South Korea not only competing together but winning bronze, a signal perhaps of what might be possible come 2020.

This didn’t just happen Thursday in Baku in halfway-around-the-world isolation. In New York on Wednesday, amid the United Nations General Assembly, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was meeting with South Korean president, Moon Jae-in. Among the topics: the seemingly far-fetched (at least for now), a joint South and North 2032 Summer Games, as well as more feasible, joint teams in 2020 in Tokyo..

As for Paris in 2024, who is the biggest — literally and figuratively — story in judo? Teddy Riner, France’s multiple Olympic and world champion. And to see another French competitor, Clarisse Agbegnenou, win her third world title here, in the women’s 63-kilo class, all five matches by ippon, was to bear witness to one of the world’s great athletes, in any sport. 

Then there is more from Europe, including 17-year-old Daria Bilodid of Ukraine, who kicked off these championships by winning the women’s 48-kilo category.

Every sport needs stories. 

More Japan: there are 14 weight categories in judo, seven for men, seven for women. In all those 14, Aaron Wolf (he has an American father) in the men’s 100-kilo class was the only Japanese who did not make the podium. He was last year’s world champion. This year, fifth. Imagine the plane ride home.

There’s so much more than Japan, though. Saeid Mollaei of Iran, who won the men’s 81-kilo category, was just tremendous, the full package of power, strength and speed. 

The thing about judo — having written about pretty much every Olympic sport now for 20 years — is that judo presents these stories in an exceedingly compelling way, and the scene in MGA only accented that presentation. 

This venue was built to serve at the 2015 European Games as a gymnastics arena, and that’s what it’s still used for, mostly. Even so, it got dressed up for judo, with blue and white signs proclaiming “Baku 2018” and “World Judo Championships” encircling the entire inside of the arena and the flags of the world making a 270-degree arc around the top.

The lighting was just right —on the floor at press row, and even from the corner of the second deck, and that was from personal experience. Same for the sound. These things matter, and a lot. Too, the music — the up-tempo hip-hop or rock classics that rang out around MGA.

Here’s what this kind of presentation, at MGA, can teach other Olympic sports:

A finals block is a two-hour deal. That means it is family-friendly. It is TV-friendly and, indeed, heading into these championships IJF announced it was expecting record-breaking viewership thanks in part to a slew of deals, including with CNN and, as well, BBC’s digital outlets. Hakuhodo DY remains the long-term rights holder of IJF World Tour events.

Every two-hour final block means, in all, 14 matches. Those matches produce, separately, one winner from a female weight category bracket and one from the men’s side, along with two third-place finishers. The action is focused, in the middle of the floor, and easy to follow, easier still because of the rules changes the sport has instituted that call for a match lasting four minutes and, if necessary, an overtime golden score.

The jumbo screen, at one end of the arena, showed the action in real time if you preferred to watch that. That said, even the highest seat in the third deck was reasonably close — for sure, you could see. 

Immediately — for emphasis, immediately — after each match, the big screen showed highlights, and in slow-motion, too. It’s 2018. This should be standard operating procedure for every sport. 

Compare: at the Asian Games a few weeks back in Jakarta, the “big screen” at the stadium for track and field was so little that you had to squint to see who might have won. The letters purportedly describing the athletes’ names were so small as to be virtually useless.

This is not to knock track, and what — if anything — it might be doing that needs improvement. IAAF president Seb Coe has made it plain time and again that track and field’s production values — that is, what the fan sees when he or she is at the stadium, and especially at its world championships — need to be refined. The IAAF just this week concluded a site visit to Doha, Qatar, and Khalifa Stadium, for its 2019 worlds, which promise to be almost radically different — with, among other features, a 100-meter-long in-stadium video board and the marathons, men’s and women’s, starting at midnight because of the desert heat.

This is, rather, about judo —and what it is already doing that is so right.

 Georgia’s Guram Tushishvili in victory with his coach // IJF

Georgia’s Guram Tushishvili in victory with his coach // IJF

On Monday, after an epic seven plus-minute men’s 90-kilo bronze medal match between Hungary’s Krisztian Toth and Japan’s Kenta Nagasawa, the camera work was so good that it captured a single bead of sweat falling off Nagasawa’s chin in slo-mo after he had, finally, prevailed.

At MGA, the fans were close enough that when someone won, he or she could immediately find, and turn to that cheering section — just as, a few moments later, Georgian-born Nikoloz Sherazadishvili did when he defeated Ivan Silva Morales of Cuba for gold, Spain’s first-ever senior world champion (yes, Spain), the fans on one side cheering, “Niko, Niko!” and the man himself waving and then turning to the other side of the arena for a jump toward the stands and an embrace. 

They were even louder on Wednesday when Georgia’s Guram Tushishvili won men’s plus-100 gold (Riner was not competing this year) — a feat all the more remarkable because, as was noted in a post-match analysis, Tushishvili registered 109.5 kilos, or 241 pounds, at weigh-in, when in this category some of the giants exceed 150 kilos, or 330 pounds, the size of an NFL offensive lineman.

When Tushishvili won out, his face lit up. He was, in fact, the king. This is connection. That kind of connection, in any sport, is raw and real emotion, and let’s be perfectly clear: that emotion is the thing that makes everything in the Olympic scene go.