Judo translates as “the gentle way.”
But after nearly a week of competition at the Rio Olympics, the meaning of the Japanese martial art seems almost paradoxical; many of the matches have ended brutally, with judo players strangling others into unconsciousness or threatening to break their opponents’ arms before forcing them to surrender.
When American Kayla Harrison fought her way to history on Thursday becoming the country’s first two-time Olympic champion, she did it in dominant form. Harrison compelled all of her opponents to submit in an automatic victory for the American, either by immobilizing them on the judo mat for 20 seconds or trapping them in an armbar, a move where the limb is hyperextended to the point of a fracture, compelling them to tap out.
“In the moment, you’re just thinking about winning,” Harrison said. “You’re so focused and so in the zone that you don’t really consider the repercussions of it, but afterwards, of course, you never really want to hurt anyone.”
After the match, Tcheumeo said that Harrison had been too strong and acknowledged that tapping out is a particularly difficult way for judoka to lose.
“It was a very hard moment because Kayla was too strong, but that’s what judo is,” she said.
It wasn’t always that way.
Judo was developed by Jigoro Kano in the 19th century in Japan and was intended as a martial art that used the opponent’s force against him without striking. During a trip Kano took to Europe to promote judo, he was heckled by a foreigner. To demonstrate judo’s effectiveness, Kano gripped the man’s shirt and threw him but held a hand underneath the sceptic’s head to protect him.
That consideration may be harder to spot at the Olympics, where some of the fighters this week have left the mat in tears clutching their injuries while others have hobbled off the mat, supported by medics.
Ghana’s first female judoka, Szandra Szogedi, left the mat doubled over in tears this week after being forced to tap out to her Brazilian opponent, caught in a stranglehold she said caused her to black out. And Brazil’s defending Olympic judo champion Sarah Menezes suffered a gruesome dislocated elbow on Saturday in a match against a Mongolian fighter that sent Menezes to the hospital.
Although classic Japanese judo has traditionally involved fighters throwing each other from an upright position, the martial art also includes a groundwork component that has become more widely employed among non-Asian fighters in particular, drawing on the wrestling traditions in many eastern European countries. In recent years, judo’s governing body has moved to encourage more of the groundwork techniques that include some of the sport’s most aggressive attacks although some practitioners dispute its brutality.
“As violent as it looks, all of the submission holds in judo are done with control,” said U.S. head coach Jimmy Pedro. “You always have to give your opponent an opportunity to submit. You can’t just break someone’s arm.”
Travis Stevens, an American judo fighter who took silver in the men’s 81-kilogram division said that while judo does have a gentle side, all bets are off when an Olympic medal is at stake.
“When it comes to [elite] judo, I have an ‘anything goes’ policy,” he said. “If you’re not qualified or skilled enough to protect yourself, you shouldn’t be on the mat.” He said the best judoka have a high pain threshold and that the injuries seen at Rio are simply an indication of the lengths they’re willing to go to for their Olympic dream.
“I don’t think any judo player is going to come out of a major competition without a few bumps and bruises,” he said. “But you have to do whatever it takes to win as long as it’s within the rules.”