Yamashita hoping for ideal judo homecoming

AFP , Tuesday 16 Aug 2016
Yasuhiro Yamashita
Yasuhiro Yamashita

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Judo will make an emotional return to the Nippon Budokan arena at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, 56 years after it made its Games debut at the venue, the sport's greatest legend Yasuhiro Yamashita said.

The sport founded by the late Jigoro Kano has been a near permanent fixture on the Olympic programme since its stunning debut when Dutchman Anton Geesink shocked Japan's Akio Kaminaga to claim the first heavyweight gold medal.

"Geesink's victory against us opened the door of judo to the world," Yamashita, an Olympic heavyweight champion in Los Angeles in 1984, told AFP.

In Rio, judo ranked third amongst sports for the total number of participating national Olympic committees, he hightlighted.

"Japan won 12 medals, I'm not sure if this is too much or not but you must not forget that 26 NOCs won medals in judo.

"That shows how much depth there is in our sport."

Judo will be a focal point for the host nation in Tokyo as it has been their most successful sport at the Games with 36 gold medals.

Yamashita says judo is the sport that most embodies the Olympic spirit.

"Looking at other sports, judo is perhaps the one that assigns the most importance to respect for the opponents -- this matches the Olympic philosophy," he said.

That was in scarce supply on Sunday when Egypt's Islam El Shehaby refused to bow to or shake hands with Israeli Or Sasson, after losing their bout.

Like most Arab countries, Egypt has strained relations with Israel.

Yamashita believes judo can play a leading role in overcoming even such seemingly insurmountable obstacles -- although it will take time.

- Beyond imagination -

Yamashita runs a charity that promotes good relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but he says a dinner he once organised in Japan and to which he invited a judoka from each side opened his eyes to the extent of the animosity in that part of the world.

"There was no barrier at all during dinner but afterwards we got together to take a group photo, and the Palestinian judoka gave an apologetic sign, expressing that he could not do that," sad Yamashita.

"I realised that if we take a photo with a Palestinian and an Israeli with smiling faces, if that photo was made public then he himself would be taking a big risk.

"It can be dangerous not only to himself but to relatives and friends.

"That's when I realised the situation between the two countries was beyond what I had imagined."

Yamashita said he could empathize with El Shehaby's predicament in that moment, but said he is determined to help change such mentalities.

"I always think about issues from the eye of the athletes and coaches, rather than top officials.

"That was not an ideal situation but I do understand the athlete's perspective.

"Of course we wish in the future that every athlete, immediately after the fight, shakes hands with a smile and hugs their opponent, but I myself do not forget the athlete's situation and perspective."

Looking ahead to Tokyo 2020, Yamashita, who is a vice president of the All Japan Judo Federation and a deputy chef de mission for the Japanese Games, said he is more interested in judo putting on a good show than in his own fighters succeeding.

"In the future I really want to see fights where both judoka try to grab the other's suit properly and try to throw to win by ippon," he said.

"I really wish judoka would not be short-sighted, thinking only about winning, but that they demonstrate their judo properly and idealistically.

"Regardless of how many gold medals Japan win in 2020, I really hope the judo competition will be even better than it was this time in Rio."

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