Judo cannot change the world, but it can help create the community, empathy and understanding that we need today.
As the Rio Olympics are underway, Americans should review the role that sports play in our society and, in particular, in raising our children. While controversies surrounding large organizations such as the NCAA, FIFA and the IOC grab headlines, sports remain an important part of our culture and socialization.
Exercise through competitive sports increases health, learning and cognitive flexibility, and helps adults manage stress and children learn important life skills. As an Olympic sport, Judo offers these benefits, as well as a structure for promoting inclusion and social justice within our communities.
So what is Judo?
Judo is a grappling art that features throws, pins, chokes and elbow locks whose influence can be found in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which have gained popularity over the past decade. While that may sound intimidating, “judo” means gentle way in Japanese and allows for fewer joint locks than its cousin Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The guiding concepts of Judo are mutual benefit and energy efficiency, which have helped expand the sport’s popularity internationally and demographically.
Personally, I have never crossed a border with my uniform, or judogi, but I have played Judo with people from Brazil, Uzbekistan, Japan, Colombia, France, Wales, Lebanon, etc. I have been thrown by rich and poor, gay and straight, 12-year-old girls and 60-year-old men, and I have learned from every fall.
Unfortunately, sports in America are increasing segregated. A majority of us experience sports within increasingly segregated public schools, which produce different results on the field based more on the wealth of the district than the determination of the student-athletes. Outside of public schools, youth sports have skyrocketed in costs, leaving behind many who cannot afford extra spending.
Even how we watch sports is changing. Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel noted that in 1965, the best seats at the baseball park were about double the cheap seats, whereas today the private box seats at an average stadium will cost several hundred times more than the cheapest, eliminating another shared experience between classes.
Judo offers a better way. On the Judo mat, all participants wear a judogi and practice in the same space. While in competition there are separate categories for gender, age, weight and experience level, in training most dojo only have capacity for a single class where all must learn to play together, aside from the occasional kids’ class.
Judo’s core values require that even the strongest or most experienced students ensure others who are smaller or newer benefit from playing, not simply attempt to overpower or outmatch their partners. This egalitarian setting allows for empowerment, discipline, self-confidence, humility and exposure to different cultures and people within the community.
My lived experience reflects these ideals. I began Judo at Ulster Budokai in Kingston, NY, which charged students barely enough to make rent. There I had a small part in helping the instruction of special needs athletes, which has since become a specialty of the dojo. The match that earned my shodan, or first-degree black belt, was refereed by Rusty Kanokogi, a world-renowned force behind the inclusion of women’s Judo in the Olympics.
I continued my training at both Penn State and Syracuse Universities under Japanese and French sensei, respectively. I presently train at DC Judo in Washington, DC, where I obtained my nidan, or second-degree black belt.
At DC Judo, we count foreign nationals, visually impaired athletes, university students, lifetime district natives and service-disabled veterans among our diverse membership. We also offer a scholarship for those who show commitment to the sport but are unable to pay dues, providing stability to those with unstable personal lives, financial need or stints of unemployment.
What Judo Can Do
Of course Judo is not perfect, as some dojos may overcharge, have a pattern of injuries or suffer from an abundance of testosterone that may intimidate prospective students. However, an inclusive model of “Judo for all” exemplified by a small town dojo like Ulster Budokai and a highly urban one like DC Judo is broadly applicable and allows for every demographic to play together, share experiences and create bonds across school districts, classes, professions and identities.
Judo cannot change the world, but it can help create the community, empathy and understanding needed to begin the process toward greater social justice and equality.
So, when you are watching the Rio Olympics this month, be sure to cheer on Kayla Harrison, the only American to earn an Olympic gold medal in Judo. Afterward, check out your local dojo. It is truly never too late to learn more about yourself and your community.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Csaba Peterdi