Judo’s long road to the Olympics

Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, made a tentative move to have judo included in the 1928 Olympics but that effort didn’t gain traction as judo at the time was not yet practiced in many countries.

Kano proselytized judo wherever he went and in 1933, during a visit to the Budokwai in London, he revealed for the first time, his vision for the creation of an international judo federation. It would take many more years for that to happen though. In 1948, the European Judo Union was formed and a year later, in 1949 (11 years after Kano’s death), the International Judo Federation was finally established.

It’s worth noting that as the years went by, Kano became more ambivalent about getting judo into the Olympics. In 1936, Kano wrote a letter to Gunji Koizumi, the founder of the Budokwai, where he commented on the prospect of judo being included in the Olympics: “My view on the matter, at present, is rather passive. If it be the desire of other member countries, I have no objection. But I do not feel inclined to take any initiative.”

Interestingly, in subsequent decades, it was the Europeans, not the Japanese, who pushed for judo to be in the Olympics. Charles Palmer, who would later become president of the International Judo Federation, recalled that during his time studying judo in Japan from 1951 to 1955, he never heard anyone talk about judo and the Olympics.

In contrast, when he attended a European Judo Union Congress in 1955, he discovered that EJU member countries had already been pushing for judo’s inclusion in the Olympics for years. It seems the International Olympic Committee declined the request because it believed that without weight categories, the competition would be unfair.

Judo at that point had been largely contested, in Japan and in other countries, as an open weight event.

Japan only became seriously interested in judo for the Olympics in 1958, after Tokyo was chosen to host the 1964 Olympics. As the host nation, Japan could choose an optional sport, and it naturally chose judo.

However, there was still the issue of weight classes. As mentioned earlier, judo at the time was largely contested as an open event. Traditionally, that’s how it was, and especially so in Japan. But there were two important reasons for Japan to consider having weight classes.

Firstly, given how dominant Japan was in judo, more judo gold medals on offer meant a larger overall gold medal tally prospect for the host country.

But there was a second, and perhaps more important, reason. In 1961, Anton Geesink of the Netherlands shocked the world by beating Koji Sone of Japan in the final of World Championships (which was an open event) by pinning him down with mune-gatame.

Suddenly, the Japanese judo community was faced with the terrifying prospect that if only the Open Weight was being contested in Tokyo 1964, Japan might actually lose it. That would have been an unmitigated disaster. Articles in Japanese newspapers warned of this happening. One headline in a Japanese newspaper read: “Wake up, Kodokan”.

The All-Japan Judo Federation initially suggested five categories: -70kg, -80kg, -90kg, +90kg and Open but later decided to push for three categories only: -68kg, -87kg and +87kg. In the end, the Olympics adopted the basic European idea of -68kg, -80kg, +80kg and an Open category.

There was also a bit of controversy over the issue of professionalism. At the time, the Olympics had a strict amateur code, and judokas who were considered professionals were not allowed to compete. Geesink of the Netherlands had taught judo to make ends meet, so it could be argued he was technically no longer an amateur.

Indeed there was a campaign in Japan to have Geesink banned for contravening the Olympics’ strict amateur code. However, the responsibility for stating an athlete’s amateur or professional status lay with the individual Olympic member countries, not the International Olympic Committee, and the Netherlands simply declared Geesink to be an amateur.

Gradually, all the thorny issues were resolved and by 1962, Japan began to hold weight category championships. It was also in 1962 that the Russians began to participate in the European Judo Championships. Prior to this, the Russians did not take part because they had their own variation called Sambo. But the prospect of Olympic gold evidently made them change their minds.

Two years later, judo finally made its Olympic debut in Tokyo.

(I owe a debt of gratitude to Nicolas Soames, whose account of the Olympics was great research material for this series.)