You know what judo gives you? Learning how to get up after a fall. Judo, you take a lot of falls. You take falls every morning, every night. But the important thing is getting up. Right back up.” – Dartanyon Crockett
So I had an additional, last-minute gig at the Paralympics: covering the three days of judo competition at the Carioca 3 arena in the Olympic Park, over 40km from the Sambodromo and the arrows.
Judo at the Paralympics is only contested by visually-impaired athletes. Athletes are classified B1, B2 or B3, with B1 indicating total or almost total blindness and B3 athletes with around 10% vision, but all classifications fight together and are only separated by weight class.
The rules are mostly identical to Olympic judo, the main difference being that competitions start with each judoka gripping the other’s jacket (a position known as ‘kumikata’). Fights last five minutes, four for women, and you can win with a spectacular ippon move that slams your opponent on their back or by tiny minor moves (yuko) or penalties (shido) for your opponent. (Yeah. I’ve been schooled this week.)
It can be slow, lumbering and attritional, punctuated by tense back-and-forths, or incredibly high-speed, twisting and violent, and there’s rarely a clue as to what you’re going to get by looking at people. Sometimes it can take ten or more minutes with the clock stopping, but the very last fight of all lasted just two seconds.
There’s a double repechage system, which awards two bronze medals, and basically means if you make it to the quarter or semifinals and lose, you get at least one more fight and a shot at a bronze. I muse more than once on whether this should be applied to international archery, and whether it would mean more or less Koreans dominating things.
There’s a deep current in judo of respect for your opponent, woven right into the fabric of the sport. Bowing first and last. Even when you’ve lost, horribly. Mesmerising. And three days it’s been full, here. Eight thousand seats, and the last day, featuring legendary Brazilian Paralympian Antonio Tenorio, completely sold out. He didn’t quite cap his career with gold, but taking silver means he has remained on the podium for a staggering 24 years. I got to shake his enormous hand.
“You start when you are little. You grow up with judo. What does it mean? You’d have to ask me in five years. I live judo, all day, every day, all around the clock. You have to be strong in life. If you’re not strong in life, you can’t do judo. You have to be clever.” – Carmen Brussig
Makoto Hirose of Japan got a silver medal, the day before his wife Junko got bronze. After I’d finished speaking to him, he bowed to me, a very deep, full respectful Japanese bow. Mate, I should be doing that to you.
“What I would like to emphasise the most is that judo is not just a physical exercise; it has a mental side too. I would like to tell young people that judo is a good way to grow up, to be a good human being.” – Makoto Hirose
I got to speak, at training, to Dartanyon Crockett, the USA judoka with a fascinating life story. Built like a truck. Took a bronze, the least he deserved.
It’s rotten, but you almost get used to Paralympic narratives; the overcoming of circumstances, the triumph of will, the ‘I hope to inspire other people’. But this lot were less like that. They were first and foremost judokas, not para-athletes. The devotion was firmly to the sport, in which sight might not be the most important sense anyway.
“Judo gives you a lot of things, but it’s hard to explain what. It’s something you have to live. It becomes your life.” – Ramona Brussig
I left the arena after three days floored with respect for everything; the athletes, the crowd, the moves. It was beautiful to see another martial art so tightly wound into people’s lives. It’s a bit late for me to take up judo, but I kind of wish I had.