‘Minor’ sport makes major wave

Noriko Anno is a diminutive ball of energy who could stimulate a new market for a cuddly toy named after her in her native Japan. She’s also better avoided in a dark alley, especially if she has scores to settle, which she had up until late this week. Anno has some of the wickedest moves in the world of judo. She, along with a vocal Japanese contingent, had sun-baked Ano Liosia rocking on Thursday afternoon as she powered her way to victory in the women’s under-78kg (half-heavy) weight class, putting her sport back on its desired track, or mat, after a week of dizzying ups and downs. It was a combined Greek triumph and tragedy within the judo world that also drew me out to Ano Liosia’s impressive new sports hall, in the gritty western Athens suburb that until recently was better known for its Gypsy encampments and an unfortunate susceptibility to flooding in heavy rain. A victory two days before by a 17-year-old Greek judoka, Ilias Iliadis, had given the sport its youngest-ever men’s champion and first-ever Greek winner, with more than a touch of youthful bravado. On the fourth day of competition, he took Greece’s second gold medal in 2004, and a wholly unexpected one by this ethnic Greek from Georgia who still has to be translated by his coach-father. Yet the sport also experienced these Games’ first tragedy when even before the opening ceremonies, Greek judoka Eleni Ioannou leapt from her apartment balcony in an apparent suicide attempt, followed a day later by her boyfriend’s similar plunge. I also attended at the invitation of Michel Brousse (official researcher of the International Judo Federation), who politely suggested a visit after seeing this paper cast an unintentional photographic slight on spotty attendance at the Athens contests of judo, for which he ably acts as spokesman. As an admitted novice at this sport with ancient roots, at once simple and subtle and which simultaneously appeals to the higher and lower minds in all of us, I also had a lot of catching up to do. I’m not alone; the first thing that greets visitors at the impressive hall is a sheet explaining «How to Read Judo Results.» (It’s not easy; after one obviously important match the volunteers had to usher me halfway around the building to the venue manager’s office to get an explanation as to whether I had just seen a medal contest or not.) Judo is a freely admitted minor sport in the Olympics pantheon, and yet its presence in Athens in this first Olympics week has experienced (quite apart from the two Greek cases) one of the few international controversies of these Games so far. Right at the outset an athlete in the 66kg category, Arash Miresmaeili from Iran, mysteriously weighed in too heavy for his weight class and was disqualified. Widespread suspicions, however, did not focus on his eating habits but his nation’s politics, and that this move was deliberate, in line with unofficial national policy of not competing against Israeli athletes; he was scheduled to meet an Israeli opponent the first round, who then got a bye to the second. There is no mistaking the Eastern origins of judo, a sport introduced (not surprisingly) into the Olympics in 1964 at Tokyo, but which is said to reflect traditional samurai values while also having influenced more recent waves of martial arts. Yet the 16 finalists at Thursday afternoon’s contests represented some 14 countries (only France and Korea had two competing), a strong indication of the international interest it has created, helped along by visibility provided on the big screen by James Cagney and Sean Connery as James Bond. Jigaro Kano was the sport’s first big promoter; he was the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee, who promoted the sport for its educational and character-building elements, which include bows to begin and end each match and reputedly even help with criminal rehabilitation. Political whiff But the sport itself was shaken by the Miresmaeili case, which had a distinct whiff of politics even as the athlete himself denied any such ulterior motives in sabotaging his first-round match by weighing in too heavily. The IOC stayed away, saying the case hadn’t been referred to it, while the federation issued a statement after a hearing by a three-man Investigation Commission. The federation’s executive board concluded that the athlete had had no planned intention not to compete (as he had weighed in) and that he had made no statement to the press (though reports were rampant that he had). In the absence of solid evidence otherwise, the federation could do little but conclude that the athlete was overweight and announce it would take no other steps. This attempt to defuse the controversy would be strengthened, of course, by any other Iranian athletes making a similar capitulation. No doubt for this reason, Israeli flags and fans were out in abundance as one of their own, Ariel Zeevi, was competing for a medal in the men’s half-heavy category (he won bronze). But it was little Noriko Anno who set the crowd alight with her last-minute dramatics, driven by a lack of an Olympic medal in her career despite winning four world titles. Almost a full head shorter than her two opponents in her two contests, she fought with calculated fury, first against France’s Celine Lebrun, Sydney 2000 silver medalist, whose bandaged foot was soon matched by a bandaged mouth received in her tussle with Anno. (The game Lebrun hobbled back for another contest later; she was placed fifth overall.) The boisterous crowd didn’t get the knockout blow from Noriko they wanted in the five-minute contest, but they did get an extra five minutes of time to see her operate. In the final minute, the Japanese fans were dancing as Noriko made a dramatic take-down, putting her into top contention. Later, having changed from white to blue, she fought China’s Xia Liu, again winning in the final minute after apparently being caught up. She got out of her predicament with a dramatic foot maneuver that led swiftly to an over-the-shoulder flip which summarily ended the match amid pandemonium. Judo may never graduate to major-sport status at the Olympics, and even at these finals many of the red upper-tier seats remained unsold. But it certainly remains a big draw for aficionados, not just from east Asia but places like France, where it has a strong following among men and women. It filled the lower, blue seats tolerably well this week, defying elitist or region-specific images, while the surprise Greek victory is likely to win it new fans, as did judo’s cousin, tae kwon do, when Michalis Mourotsos won at Sydney.

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