What do South Korea, Russia, Japan, France, Brazil, Georgia, North Korea, Slovenia, Cuba, Germany, Romania, Hungary, China, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Greece, Italy, Mongolia, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Uzbekistan all have in common? Each nation has won a medal in judo at the London Games—and there are still two more days of competition. Few Olympic sports have such a wide spectrum of countries competing and medaling. There are no powerhouse nations in this Japanese martial art, which was introduced for male competition at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Even Japan, which used to maintain a death grip on the top ranks of judo, must battle with a United Nations’ rainbow of worthy competitors.
In London, 386 judoka, as judo athletes are called, have competed or will be fighting. Forty-two medals are on offer, meaning that at least one in 10 athletes will go home having stood on the medal podium. Those are pretty good odds and partly explains the sport’s popularity at the Olympics. At the London Opening Ceremony, 20 of the 205 flag-bearers—from Montenegro, Benin and Palestine to the Seychelles, Kyrgyzstan and Fiji—were judoka, a dominance outdone only by athletics. The flag-bearers included Chad’s only athlete in the Games, Carine Ngarlemdana, a 17-year-old entrant in the -70 kg category. (On Aug. 1, she lost in the round of 32 to Great Britain’s Sally Conway.) “The world will hear from Chad, through judo,” said Chadian judo federation president Abakar Djermah, in a statement.
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Judo made headlines early in the Games when the International Judo Federation (IJF) ruled that Saudi Arabia’s first female judoka, Wojdan Shaherkani, could not wear a headscarf while competing because competitors might grab it and accidentally choke her. Saudi Arabia had consented to send its first female athletes in history on the condition that they would wear Islamic dress while competing. Intense negotiations between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the IJF and the Saudis ensued. On July 31, an agreement was hammered out to allow Shaherkani to wear some sort of head-covering during her bout, just three days before the 16-year-old is due to compete on Friday in the +78 kg weight class. She will battle Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico.
Drawn from the ancient samurai martial art of jujutsu, judo, which means the “gentle way,” was codified into a sport in the late 19th century by a strict Japanese educator named Jigoro Kano. He later became the first Asian member of the IOC. Judo matches last a maximum of five minutes and are governed by a complex set of rules, making refereeing and judging key. The women’s sport was added to the Olympics at the 1992 Barcelona Games. (Originally the men’s sport was to be added at the 1940 Olympics, but World War II got in the way.)
But is judo actually any fun to watch? At its most exciting, the sport can climax in thrilling throws and brawny grapples. But all too often judo devolves into a series of baffling hugs and confusing penalties in which points are awarded or subtracted in a system that is impenetrable to a neophyte viewer. The terminology, which uses Japanese phrases for various throws and grips, can be as esoteric as chess moves. Britain’s Conway, for instance, vanquished the Chadian judoka by an Ippon throw and the Kuzure-kesa-gatame technique. The eventual gold medal winner in the -70 kg women’s final, France’s 30-year-old Lucie Decosse, won by the Ko-soto-gari technique, after an early Wazari. Got that? Luckily, judoka from dozens of countries competing in the Olympics do.