Friday, September 10, 2010

World Judo Championships - Day 1 - September 9, 2010

Japan is the birthplace of judo and Tokyo was the site of the first two World Championships in 1956 and 1958. In the intervening 52 years, the championships have been back to Japan twice (Osaka and Chiba) but this is their first return to Tokyo. Good news for me as it started on a Thursday which gave me a chance to head over to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium to catch the action in 4 weight classes.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium

Built to house the swimming, diving, and basketball events in the 1964 Olympics, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium actually consists of two buildings. The second, smaller gym is where the bj League's Tokyo Apache play, but it is the larger facility in which the judo is being held. It's an interesting looking venue from both the outside and inside as you can see below.

There are two levels of seating; for the tournament the lower level seats are reserved and cost 5,000 yen while the upper level seats are unreserved and going for 3,000 and 1,000 yen. No need to splurge here as the gym is small enough that you can see well from anywhere. However, only one side of the arena seemed to be open to the public, the other side was reserved for athletes, coaches, and other officials.

One cool thing was a giant judogi that must be used for the really, really, really big weight classes.

The Rules of Judo

A quick guide to the basics of judo for those who are not familiar with it.

Two competitors (judoka) face off in a match that lasts 5 minutes, with brief stoppages when they leave the mat area. In international competition, one judoka is in white while the other is in dark blue.

The object is to score more points than your opponent. Points are generally achieved by throwing or pinning your opponent. There are three levels of points: ippon, waza-ari, and yuko.

Ippon (one point) is the highest level and indicates the immediate end of the match. Ippon can be achieved in 3 ways: throw your opponent on his shoulder or back with force and speed, pinning him on his back for 25 seconds, or forcing him to tap out due to a hold.

Waza-ari (has technique) is awarded when the throw lacks in one of the three elements necessary for ippon or when the pin is between 20 and 25 seconds. Two waza-ari equals ippon, so essentially waza-ari is like a half-point.

Yuko (effective) is awarded when the throw lacks in two of the three elements necessary for Ippon, or the pin lasts between 15 and 20 seconds. However, no amount of yuko will equal a waza-ari, it is used merely as a tiebreaker.

There are also penalties, known as shido, which are given for being too defensive or for not attacking, among other offenses. Shido are similar to yellow cards in soccer, while red cards are known as hansoku-make (loss by penalty) and signify immediate defeat. An example of a hansoku-make would be to lift a prone opponent off the mat and drive him back on to the mat.

Two shido equals one yuko for the opponent, while three equals a waza-ari and four is considered an ippon and immediate defeat.

Should the match be tied after 5 minutes, a 3 minute "Golden Score" period is played. Much like sudden death, should a judoka get a point during this time, he will win the match immediately. If the match is still tied after Golden Score, the referee and two judges will then decide the winner, without consultation. Each independently raises a white or blue flag to indicate who they feel is the winner and the judoka with more flags is awarded the match.

Aesthetics and etiquette are an important part of judo with the beauty of an ippon throw being well respected and a big hit with fans.

At first glance, it seems like a simple sport, but there are nearly 100 recognized techniques that can be used, based on throwing, grappling, striking the body, and defense. I can't even begin to explain them so read the Wikipedia link if you are at all interested.

The Format

When the championship started, there was only the men's division and a single open competition where weight was not relevant. Over time, it has evolved to where there are seven weight categories for both men and women as well as an open category (where anyone can enter regardless of weight) that has been revived this year.

Each of the first four days has 3 or 4 tournaments with the heavier athletes performing on day 1 while the lightest are on day 4. The final day is for the open tournament.

Each tournament is a simple knockout until the final 8 are reached. If you lose in this quarterfinal round, you still have a chance at a bronze medal through the repechage system. This is where the four QF losers are matched up, with the winners then advancing to meet the semi-final losers for a bronze medal. Naturally the SF winners meet up for the gold medal. In this way, there are no 4th, 6th, or 8th spots. There are two bronze medals, while the bronze medal losers are given 5th place and the repechage losers finish 7th.

The Preliminaries

The first day saw the men's +100kg and -100kg (but above 90kg) weight classes and the women's +78kg and -78kg (but above 70kg).

The morning and afternoon are spent getting to the semi-finals in each of the four categories.
The first matches got underway at 10 am and all four mats were in use for about 4 and a half hours. I missed the first few matches but the program had the brackets so I was able to get caught up pretty quickly. There was no rest between the matches, all 4 mats were in continual use until near the end of the preliminaries. It was certainly fun to watch and learn, but you missed quite a bit while focusing on one match. Ippons were very common and the best one was from Japan's Takamasa Anai (1st in the world, below in blue in a later match against eventual bronze medalist Thierry Fabre of France) who flipped Lukas Krpalek (12th) of the Czech Republic in just 5 seconds.

I should note that there are world rankings for judoka and the program lists the top 15 from July 23rd and I'm using those here, though I suspect they are slightly out-of-date. As well, the brackets are seeded for the top 8 only so you can get top judoka facing off early.

As such, there were plenty of upsets early on. In the +100kg class, Japan's 3rd-ranked Keiji Suzuki lost to #15 Janusz Wojnarowicz of Poland in the first round, hugely disappointing the home fans. Meanwhile, American Kayla Harrison (#14) defeated France's top-ranked Celine Lebrun in the quarter-finals.

The Opening Ceremonies

Once the semi-finalists were determined, there was a 90-minute break before the opening ceremonies. Fortunately you were allowed out of the stadium so I was able to head over to Harajuku station to pick up some snacks for the afternoon. When I returned, it was time to get things started.

A 100-person shamisen (a Japanese 3-stringed instrument) ensemble, known as Oyama-kai, opened things up with a performance (below).

Then calligrapher Koji Kakinuma used a giant brush to write "Ippon" in Japanese. This was really interesting. You can see him and the brush below, and the way it looked on TV below that.

The flags of the 111 participating nations were marched out with Japan's arriving last and we all stood for the Japanese national anthem. Then it was speech time, with Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara providing the most amusing moments when he decried the judo at the Beijing Olympics to be boring and hoped that we would enjoy a return to the real meaning of the sport (i.e. beauty, etiquette, etc - I guess the Olympics were rather dull for him).

Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation, then declared the championships officially open and we were ready for the medal matches.

The Medal Matches

First were the repechage and semi-final bouts. The two outer mats were covered up and each weight class held its two matches simultaneously in the center.

In one -78kg class semi-final, Harrison defeated 3rd ranked Ukrainian Maryna Pryshchepa,while 5th-ranked Japanese Akari Ogata won her repechage to advance to the bronze medal match.

In the +78 category, Mika Sugimoto (Japan, unranked, pictured above in white) advancing to the final while fellow Japanese and #2 Maki Tsuchida lost to #3 Qian Qin of China. I should point out that Sugimoto is quite short for her weight class, coming in at around 5'5".

Anai also advanced to the final in the -100 class, while world #1 Teddy Riner of France edged Japan's Kazuhiko Takahashi (#4) in a golden score battle in the +100 category.

This left 3 matches for each weight class: one for the gold medal and two for bronze medals. The third mat was covered and now each match would occur individually. The bronze medal matches were mildly interesting with Ogata and Tsuchida winning for Japan while Takahashi lost.

I was looking forward to the gold medal matches but they turned out to be anti-climatic. Harrison won her match against Brazil's Mayra Aguiar (#13) with just a single yuko during sudden death. She was naturally ecstatic to bring home the USA's first women's world judo gold since 1984. That's her and coach Jimmy Pedro (who won a gold in 1999) below just after the match.

Next up was the +78 class and Sugimoto defeated Qin who compiled for shido for non-aggressive behaviour. That's her below, hanging her head in shame for winning the championship in that manner I guess. She was smiling later though, so perhaps just exhausted after chasing Qin around the mat.

The two men's matches went as expected with Anai defeating Henk Grol (Netherlands, #10) based on Grol accumulating 2 shido. That's Anai celebrating below as Grol lies defeated behind him.

The final match was between Riner and Germany's 9th-ranked Andreas Toelzer. It went to a Golden Score and Riner won it with the throw shown below which was awarded a simple yuko.

I say that these final matches didn't meet expecations because there were no ippon throws, which is what people really want to see. Still, judo is as much defense as attack (if not more) so it shouldn't be surprising that the last matches were more sparring than anything.

Afterwards, the medals were presented. That's sumo Yokozuna Hakuho presenting Harrison with her gold below, while the following picture shows Sugimoto and Tsukada awaiting their medals.

The national anthem of the champion's country was played, which made the local fans happy as "Kimi Ga Yo" was heard twice. Japan was obviously the big winner on the day with 2 gold and 2 bronze but France also did well with a gold and two bronze themselves.

It was nearly 9pm by day's end, which meant I spent over 9 hours there. Of course, there was the break but still it was a very interesting time. So much so I plan to return next week for the open competition and suggest to anyone in Tokyo who has some time this weekend to check it out, even just for a few hours.


One of the interesting things about judo is that upsets are common so you never know what is going to happen. In many individuals sports where there are two competitors, the first rounds are usually run of the mill. In tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal almost always advance to the semi-finals these days for example. But here, one bad move and you are done.

On the same note, to be world champion, you only have to win 5 or 6 matches in a day. In team sports, champions are decided over months, but in this case, you have to bring your best on just one day. That's why it was exciting to see unranked Sugimoto win as well as Harrison, who is moving up the ranks. In the men's side, both #1 seeds took the title, but there were times that they were in trouble.

All in all, a very exciting day and I'm looking forward to Monday's action.

Next Up

After the judo on Monday, there's a couple of ballgames I'll check out next week with my friend Meg who will be completing her 12 NPB parks in 14 days tour. One is the Giants at Yakult (yet again) on Wednesday and then I'll take her to the Giants minor league stadium the following day to see the soon-to-be-gone Shonan Searex. Check back next week for posts on all these and other events.



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