UPDATE (12/8/2016): The last few days this post has received a lot of new hits, the first time it’s been noticed in 4 years, and this is obviously because the judo is on at the Rio Olympics. I’d just like to say that this year there seems to be a lot less of the faffing I discuss below – a lot more victories on real points, lots of ippon, and few refereeing decisions. Also Japan has won a gold and lots of bronze, which is nice. So I guess sometime in the past 4 years the Judo authorities must have had a good long think about how to make their sport more interesting. I wonder if UFC forced them to reconsider …? Anyway, if you’re reading this post now, please bear in mind that some of these complaints don’t apply as much to the judo you’re watching – whatever reason you came here after watching judo at the 2016 olympics, it was worse in 2012!!

On Thursday the Yahoo Japan news service began a countdown to the first Olympics ever in which no male competitor won Judo gold. Watching the olympics from Japan means I have been exposed to a feast of judo competition, and it has been very exciting. It has also, however, been extremely frustrating and at times boring, because there seem to be a few serious problems with the way judo bouts are conducted. The frustrations boil down to basically two main complaints: almost everyone wins on penalties rather than technique; and judge’s decisions are extremely opaque. There’s something vaguely wrong with winning gold medal because of accumulated penalties, rather than anything you actually did, and it’s also frustrating to watch someone hurled to the ground by a moderately well-applied throw, only to have it come to nothing. This is especially frustrating because one well-applied throw (ippon) wins the match no matter how many not-quite-so-good throws the opponent has applied, even if the effective results of the throws are in both cases essentially the same. In essence, the points awarded to a move are based not on how much it damages the opponent but on how well it was applied.

Having a history in kickboxing, this seems like a very strange idea to me. You don’t win knockouts in kickboxing by kicking someone more beautifully than they kicked you. A knockout should be objectively determined by the opponent’s inability to continue fighting, not by a dubious judgment about whether the technique was better applied than the previous move. Also, one should be able to lose a fight through accumulation of minor infringements, especially since the minor infringements incurred during the Olympic bouts largely seemed to be “stalling.” It doesn’t just make the fights sometimes boring to watch, it makes the end of the fight frustrating, I don’t think it encourages players not to stall, it doesn’t reward the best players, it puts too much weight on split-second decisions by judges, and I think it reduces the amount of technique put on display. I think judo could be made more interesting and pleasurable to watch (and maybe better to participate in too), though enacting a few changes to make it flow a bit more like boxing…

  1. Move to multiple rounds: A single five minute round, with a subsequent three minute “golden score” round, simply encourages stalling and thus the accumulation of penalties. Wrestling for five minutes is enormously physically demanding, and attempting even one serious throw (or getting out of one serious attempt at a hold) can take it out of even the fittest of people. A 30 second break between two three minute bouts would discourage stalling, since it would enable the fighters to take a break after herculean efforts, but it would also give them an opportunity to consult with their coach, regroup mentally, and consider weak points in their fighting. This would make moves in the second round much more effective. Given most bouts go to a three minute golden round at present, all bouts could simply be set up as three, three-minute rounds with no golden score, and the audience would get to enjoy not just fresh fighters in the second and third rounds, but changes of tactic as the fighters consult during breaks
  2. Knockouts should be objective: It should not be possible to score a knockout win if the opponent is not actually knocked out. Holding someone down for 25 seconds, doing a particularly beautiful throw, all good things but completely irrelevant to victory. A knockout should be either a submission hold forcing the opponent to tap out, or a choke that knocks them unconscious. Anything else should just be points in the bag, and there should be no points for holding someone down for 25 seconds – what’s the purpose of that? Players should only be holding each other down on the ground for the purpose of getting a submission hold – if they can’t get one on after a judicious period of time the referee should break them up and restart the fight. That will stop this kind of silliness.
  3. Move to a boxing-style points system: Rather than having categories of points that don’t interact (ippon, waza-ari, yuko), throws and failed submission holds should be scored on arithmetically accumulating points (1 for a partial effort, 2 for a beautiful effort), and any bout that doesn’t end in a knockout should be judged on the sum of these points, like boxing. This shift, more than anything else involving penalties, will put an end to stalling, because if players know that two imperfectly-executed throws will count as much as one beautiful throw, they will try harder to use techniques instead of fiddling with one another’s collars for three minutes while they try to put on that perfect match-winning throw. It’s a simple fact of fighting that every attempted attack sets you up for a counter, and if you know that by putting yourself out there you make it easier for your opponent to win the match with just one throw, you won’t act until you’re certain. The result of all this faffing around is the accrual of penalties, and fights won on penalties. A point-style system won’t stop this kind of silliness, but it will at least encourage application of judo techniques during the actual bout.
  4. Penalties should not win fights: except in extreme cases, obviously, but penalties should only make the difference in a close fight (except perhaps safety penalties). I personally think penalties for stalling should not exist (except in the most egregious of cases), because fighting can be a thinking woman’s sport, and people shouldn’t be penalized for having a counter-attacking style or for taking their time against an opponent with longer reach or different techniques. No one wants to watch a fight with no moves being made, but no one wants to watch a fight where the competitors are going through the motions to avoid a penalty even though they’re both dead on their feet.
  5. Take the judging away from the referee: The referee can’t see all angles of the battle, but it’s the referee who currently decides whether a move is ippon or waza-ari or yuko. Sure, the ringside judges can interfere but to a large extent judging is currently done by the referee. I think this will just lead to bad decisions. A panel of three judges, watching from different angles, should decide all points-related issues, and the referee should adjudicate on the fighting stuff – whether to break up foes who have gone to ground, whether a move was unsafe, etc.
  6. Ditch the prissiness and bullying: Several times I watched a fight actually being interrupted so that the referee could tell a contestant to do up their belt. This seems amazingly prissy to me, and it’s a mark of a sport that is obsessed with its traditions. These athletes are at the top of their field in the world, they train really hard and work with extreme discipline to get into this event, where they get in trouble for even a few seconds of time wasting no matter how exhausted they are – but the referee can stop the fight to worry about their belts. I think that’s plainly quite insulting and it strikes me as a hallmark of the kind of bullying that is endemic in the “traditional” martial arts. I also notice that the ringside judges point at each other when they are discussing a disagreement, and some team coaches clearly have a very bad attitude towards discipline – I watched one telling scene where a French woman won her bout, and upon reaching the edge of the mat received a blistering earful of abuse from her coach. That’s not how you inspire athletes and its not how you make a sport into a spectacle. So ditch the fussing about uniforms and tradition, and treat it for what it is – a sport that should be conducted in a way that makes it fun for participants and viewers alike. Speaking of which …
  7. Mouthguards and groinguards should be mandatory: I watched a German woman in a state of panic after copping a hand to the face, because she wasn’t wearing a mouthguard. I can’t believe that she was allowed within reach of the olympic stadium without a full set of protective equipment, and the idea that she could be competing in a sport at this level with no protective gear is astounding. I can’t find the rules online but it appears that at least some federations have banned mouthguards, which is hard to comprehend. I’m pretty confident that this is unnecessary, and martial arts newsgroups certainly have reports of wrestlers who wear them in sparring (as do many judoka, I think). So why not in competition? This is another classic symptom of bullying in sport and it should be stamped out immediately.

So in essence, move to boxing-style judging systems, make knockouts objective rather than subjective, remove the judging role from the referee, and ensure that the fighters get regular breaks and an opportunity to consult with their coaches. And don’t insult them by fussing about their belts – it’s childish and patronizing. Maybe with those changes judo can become as fun and engaging as the other great combat sports – boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts.

And, speaking of which – today is the first day of women’s boxing in the Olympics, which is nice. But why aren’t kickboxing and MMA in there? If kickboxing became an Olympic sport, Thailand would be in the top 10 countries every time!