I is for Ippon

Shoshei Ono upending Ugo Legrand on his head. Photo by Jack Willingham, official judo photographer.

There is a country that is more passionate about judo than Japan, even though “the gentle way” was crafted by Japanese educator Kano Jigoro. The Japanese martial art was designed to be about control rather than combat, defeating an opponent by knocking him off balance rather than beating him senseless. In judo, the ippon is the match-ending throw or pin, like a pin in wrestling, although such a move in judo is about orchestrating a series of techniques rather than exerting dominance through force, strategic as much as physical:

In this sport, you search for the ippon (winning throw) and I like this because it’s difficult, it’s not an easy sport.

Teddy Riner, three-time Olympic medalist and ten-time World champion in the 100kg+ class in Judo.

Six-foot eight-inch Teddy Riner is in the running to become the Greatest Of All Time, as we Americans would say. Riner just lost his first match in ten years this past February, wherein he tweeted to his thousands of followers:

Merci à tous 🙏🏾🙏🏾
On ne lâche pas et on se remet au boulot

Teddy Riner, after his win streak of 154 ended at the Paris Grand Slam.

Yep, that’s right. Teddy Riner is from that judo-crazy country, France.

Voulez-vou Pratiquer le Judo Avec Moi?

Judo practitioners claim that the sport has perhaps somewhere between 6-20 million followers worldwide. It’s hard to keep track. Data on a sport’s total popularity is a little sketchy, especially looking at team sports like soccer vs. an individual discipline, such as judo. For comparison, at the 2016 Rio Games, 137 countries sent participants, compared with only 76 for boxing, 68 for wrestling, or 24 for beach volleyball. For Olympic basketball, only 17 countries could field teams; for judo, add 120 more. And put France at the top of the list.

France boasts some 600-800,000 members of the Judo Federation, compared with an estimated 200,000 in Japan. The discipline was first brought to France in the 1950s by Moshe Feldenkrais, the Israeli engineer who also created the Feldenkrais exercise therapy which focuses on posture and self-awareness through movement. Judo didn’t immediately take off, not until the mid-1960s. Parents and teachers noticed that children taught judo fared better in school, and it became to be encouraged broadly as part of the education system. Today, nearly 10% of eight-year-olds belong to the French Judo Federation, more than any other sport.

French judo is taught widely at a young age. Photo by CNN.

Judo rose to popularity in France without a Teddy Riner to boost national interest. Kids in America played basketball before Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry. But when an innovator and a dominator comes along, and begins winning medals while representing the country, the lines to sign up for the sport lengthen exponentially. Now more than ever, French people–French children–adore their “Teddy Bear.”

Teddy Bear

Riner started winning medals as a teenager and entered the Beijing 2008 Games as a world champion. However, he lost in early rounds and, while he battled back through the repechage to win a bronze, it seemed to only fuel his desire. After another defeat, by a judge’s decision in 2010, suggesting maybe “he was robbed,” Riner didn’t lose again for 154 straight matches.

Even at 300 lbs (140 kg), Riner has phenomenal balance. Executing the various types of throws, on Youtube for example, you see over and over the well-practiced move. Riner is adept at sweeping his opponent’s leg, not just to the side, but completely upward. This requires him to balance all 300 lbs on the remaining leg, while the other pulls his opponent’s 300 lbs upward, then downward. This, while the other person has nearly the same expertise, knows it’s coming, and is trying to do the same thing.

Riner executing an Uchi Mata at the Paris Grand Slam. Photo by Jack Willingham.

When Aleksander Karelin lost in Olympic wrestling to Rulon Gardner after an undefeated 13 years, Karelin left his shoes on the mat and retired. But Riner seems to be energized by his loss a few months ago, ready to rethink his approach. All great champions seem to get bored of winning. Some go back to the drawing board. After the loss, Riner mentioned that he had been overly focused on the great Yasuhiro Yamashita’s 203 victory win streak, and it was a relief to get that out of the way. The Yamashita connection brings up another great Olympic story.

International Fairplay

A remarkable display of the intersection of judo and sportsmanship took place at the 1984 Games. Not surprisingly, it was also covered in Bud Greenspan’s documentary I mentioned two days ago. Yasuhiro Yamashita was attempting for a medal after the 1980 boycott, seeking his lifetime desire to become Olympic champion in judo. At the time, Yamashita had won 196 victories. Most of his bouts were finished in less than 30 seconds. But in Los Angeles, in an early match against a minor opponent, he tears a calf muscle.

In the semifinal against France’s Del Colombo, the frenchman attacks the leg, although neither is able to complete a clear throw. Yamashita later makes it clear; taking advantage of an injury is considered part of the sport, and he would not have hesitated if the situation were reversed. Ultimately, Yamashita subdues his opponent with grappling techniques on the mat and advances to the finals, but his injury has worsened. It is his right leg, the plant leg. He faces Mohamed Rashwan of Egypt, another strong competitor.

Rashwan tries to shift his opponent’s balance without directly aggravating Yamashita’s injury. His attempts fail. In judo, as with other combat sports, you must be aggressive and attack, but to do so always risks shifting your own balance. When Rashwan misses, Yamashita uses his momentum against him, and subdues the Egyptian to win the medal. Later, Rashwan is also honored by the International Fairplay Committee for competing respectfully, not trying to damage his weakened opponent’s leg.

The Ippon Is Not the Only Way

Not all great champions win through the ippon. An attempt at a throw can put both opponents on the ground. The greatest American judo champion, double gold medalist Kayla Harrison, dominated at the Olympics with grappling. Groundwork techniques, called newaza, can involve just as much discipline. Harrison had noticed that many of her competitors didn’t like to practice or side controls. One of her opponents said, “I don’t like the ground…In Europe you get up quick.”

Harrison winning from the ground. Photo by IJF Robin Willingham.

But Harrison countered:

There’s only one way to win standing. You can throw. [But] I won two out of four matches at the [London] Olympics with armbars.

Kayla Harrison, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, 2016.

So the ippon isn’t the only way to win. But Teddy Riner, the national French hero, still likes it. Riner is interested in competing, not just through 2021 Tokyo, but in the Paris Games of 2024. He remains dedicated to winning but also to the grace and discipline of judo, always seeking to be better:

You search for a beautiful technique, for a beautiful ippon.

“Teddy Riner: Meet judo’s history-making man mountain,” CNN August 2017.

This post continues the series on the Olympics for the April A to Z challenge:

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