Judo comes home to its roots

Judo has grown beyond all recognition since the sport, which was founded in Japan, made its Olympic debut at Tokyo’s last Games in 1964. As Tokyo prepares to host the 2019 World Championships before next year’s showpiece, the popularity of judo is exploding worldwide – thanks to the IJF’s development initiatives.

As the clock ticks down to Tokyo 2020, judo has forged a uniquely solid footing to ensure it is ideally positioned to maximise opportunities in Japan and beyond, before and after next year’s Olympic Games.

Japan was not only judo’s birthplace, but the sport also made its Olympic debut at Tokyo’s previous Games in 1964.

The 2020 Olympic judo competition will take place at the Nippon Budokan, 56 years after the same venue hosted the sport’s Games debut.

Whilst many sports view the Olympics as a launchpad for development in the country, there can be little doubt that judo is already one step ahead as it prepares to return to its roots.

“There is a symbolic dimension,” the International Judo Federation’s media director, Nicolas Messner, says. “Judo was born in Japan and coming back to the country is always a bit special for all judo lovers, especially as the sport has spread all over the world.”

World Championships

With the 2019 World Judo Championships also taking place at the Nippon Budokan from August 25-31, athletes, officials and fans will be offered a taste of what to expect 11 months before the Olympic competition returns to the same venue.

Moreover, the Championships will stoke an interest that has grown steadily in Japan since Tokyo hosted the first two editions of the Championships, in 1956 and 1958.

The Japanese cities of Chiba and Osaka staged the Championships before they returned to Tokyo in 2010, the most recent edition to take place in the country. Tokyo has also hosted an annual IJF Grand Slam Series event for men since 2006 and women since 2007.

In preparation for the Championships later this year, the IJF has been working closely with the All Japan Judo Federation and the Kodokan Judo Institute.

“Working with the AJJF and the Kodokan is always a pleasure,” Messner adds. “They are very professional and do know how to organise good events in the best way possible. Every time there is a major event in Japan, the organisation is perfect and every detail is taken into consideration. The advantage of the Championships this year is that everything will be tested in a realistic scale so that it will be the best Olympics ever in 2020.”

Recipe for success

The unprecedented success of Japan’s judo team has helped to boost public anticipation. Japan easily topped the medal table at the 2018 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, with eight golds among a total of 17 medals – 13 more than second-placed South Korea.

“Media and TV interest is building momentum as everybody knows that judo coming back to Tokyo and Japan is a must-see event,” says Messner, who is also responsible for producing the Judo for the World documentary series.

However, whilst judo in Japan will naturally take centre stage for the sport’s leading athletes with the 2019 Championships and 2020 Olympics, the IJF is well aware that hosting two such high-profile events in Japan in consecutive years will have an impact across the wider region.

“Japan is definitely an important market for the development of judo, but Korea is another, as well as China,” Messner adds. “Having the World [Championships] and the Olympics coming to the region two years in a row will help to continue the development of judo in those countries, as well as in the sport’s comparatively less-developed countries.

“The increased visibility of judo in the media and the increased interest of sponsors is a good sign and the popularity of the sport is rising rapidly. In parallel, the IJF, assisted by national federations, is focusing on development and values through extensive educational programmes, such as Judo For Children, Judo In School and Judo For Peace, which are more and more successful and popular.”

Global growth

Over the last generation, the growth of judo worldwide has been startling. As recently as 1991 the World Championships in Barcelona, a year ahead of the Olympics in the same city, attracted a total of 57 competing nations. More than double that number have been in attendance at each edition of the Championships since 2011.

A crucial aspect of this growth is the IJF’s commitment to education as part of its development initiatives. Judo For The World, for example, has helped to engage young judo enthusiasts from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina up to Inuit communities in northern Canada, as well as aboriginal communities in Africa and Australia.

The size of country has been no barrier to success in international competitions, with the likes of Kosovo being one of the sport’s top nations. The IJF has also been keen to use the sport as a driver for positive change in countries and regions that have suffered from natural disasters or conflicts.

In the Middle East, Israel has been elevated to grand prix event-hosting status this year, having already successfully staged continental championships and produced a number of the sport’s top athletes since the early 1990s. The development comes after Israeli athletes were allowed to compete under their national flag in the United Arab Emirates for the first time last year.

“The political situation is difficult, but we believe that this Grand Prix event in Israel will help to build a more stable world in the future,” Messner says.

Olympic opportunities

Ten destinations are on the grand prix calendar this year, as well as six grand slam events, the Masters in China and the World Championships.

There will be added incentives for competing judokas worldwide, with the events providing multiple opportunities to qualify for a place at Tokyo 2020.

However, in the tiers below the big-name superstars, it is the IJF’s development work in the grassroots of the sport that will ensure a positive legacy for years to come, with youth-focused projects now active in more than 30 countries.

The Judo for Peace initiative is also present in several refugee camps, with the IJF having formed a close partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees programme.

“The IJF is very visible through its World Judo Tour, but a lot is going on in the fields of development and education,” Messner says. “We are very proud of what judo can do.”