Want to Win an Olympic Medal? Try the Japanese Sport of Judo

Few Olympic sports have such a wide spectrum of countries competing and medaling as Judo. 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.

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FRANCK FIFE / AFP / Getty Images

Korea's Hwang Ye-Sul (white) competes with Italy's Erica Barbieri (blue) during their women's -70kg judo contest match of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 1, 2012 at the ExCel arena in London.

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.)

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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.

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 I'm Japanese and I think It is not too early to change the words from Japanese to English in the international competition. But it is more important to change rules more clearly so as to be enjoyable for all spectators. We expect more ippon or dynamic throws in judo.

Noco T
Noco T

You misspelled Waza-ari as Wazari. If you failed to do a basic research  about the sport, why you even try to talk about it?

If you try and complain about the terminology of Judo, how about Fencing? They use French in key movement, like get ready, go. Do you argue they need to correct that too?

Judo is not only a sport, it is also a culture originated in Japan. Thanks to the lack of broadcasting of the sport on TV unlike other sports where U.S. players are most successful, Judo and its rules are not well explained to its audience and remain in a dim light.

As a fan of a sport and a Japanese, I regrettably observe that the nature of the sport, the art of Judo is changing.

It is probably our sentiment among Japanese, that Judo should remain as a WAY to excel in the style and grow spirits, thus, in that sense, we look for a beauty of the forms when WAZA is counted in its competition.

Many competitions of Judo nowadays, however, have changed into something somewhat resembling wrestling match; where a Judoka often can be awarded a win by simply not attacking, but a mistake, or shido point (instruction) of an opponent. It is not Judo. Judoka should aim for Ippon, meaning you should remain your attempts of attacking for more points for the whole time until the time runs out. Otherwise, you should also be instructed to (that goes against you).

But it is changing. It is probably because the  popularity of the sports now practiced in various countries, that may have diluted the meaning or the spirit of the culture that it was deprived from. Also one can suspect that the lack of qualified instructors for both Judoka and judges may have caused it. 

It is a tough question for a Japanese Judoka, to remain true to the sports and risk her victories, or change her style to win and risk losing her touch to the true essence and spirit of the sport, as the rest of the world seem to go into a different direction.


Confusing to a neophyte viewer, like yourself?  I personally find the sport enjoyable to watch even though I'm not familiar with any of the rules.

"The terminology, which uses Japanese phrases for various throws and grips, can be as esoteric as chess moves."

What a ridiculous comment, especially coming from a TIME journalist.  It's especially ethnocentric if she is arguing that retaining Japanese words takes away from judo's "fun".  Every sport has its own set of terminology and rules that are never obvious to a spectator who does not have some familiarity with the sport.  The difference between a "front snap kick" and a "side thrusting kick" in Taekwondo, or what constitutes a "clean and jerk" in weightlifting can be just as "esoteric" to many people.

Also, I highly doubt that the diversity of medalists makes the sport any easier.  A  potential gold medalist would have to go through 4 or 5 rounds within the same day before reaching the finals.  Diversity does not necessarily equate with chaos, and instead highlights the rising popularity of judo around the world.


Good article! But does the title suggest that it is relatively easy to win a medal in Judo? It is not. Also, it should be noted that games can be lengthened up to 8 minutes.


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