Magazine article The Spectator

Going for Gold

Magazine article The Spectator

Going for Gold

Article excerpt

'My legs are leaden, my throat is dry and I feel slightly sick with anxiety. As I make my way towards the arena the roar of the crowd gets louder. One question keeps edging into the small part of my mind which is functioning normally: what on earth are the combatants going through if I feel like this when I've just come along to watch?' This is the opening salvo of Mark Law's excellent The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo, published last year and prominently displayed in Brussels last week at the ugly but gigantesque Centre Sportif, Kinetix, central Brussels, and about 25 klicks from the place Napoleon met his Waterloo.

An enormous 200-foot poster announces that this is the 10th World Masters Judo Championships, 24-29 June 2008, as if it had slipped my mind. Upon arrival on the Tuesday, Mark Law's words come immediately to mind. The butterflies are tripping the light fantastic inside my gut and I still have two days to go before the action starts.

The worst part is the waiting to register, followed by the weigh-in. Sixteen hundred competitors from 29 countries mean a lot of beef, and the kind of beef that makes jumping the queue dangerous to one's health.

Violence is exciting, according to many writers, but only for the young. When I competed in karate tournaments during the Sixties and Seventies, the excitement grew as the day got nearer, then total panic set in.

By 1983, aged 48, I couldn't take it any longer and called it a day as far as karate tournaments were concerned. Judo, however, is less violent than karate, although there are more injuries due to the somersaults, foot sweeps and the whacking one gets on the floor from one's opponent, who more often than not rides on top of you while you crashland. There are also painful arm bars and choke holds which can put one to sleep as easily as picking up a hooker in a St Tropez nightclub.

One doesn't think about such matters while waiting to weigh in among hundreds of naked men, few of whom have won any sanitary prizes, especially those from the old Soviet Union. One just tries to look cool and detached, occasionally cracking a joke about a particularly cauliflowered competitor. Ninety-nine per cent of professional judokas have cauliflower ears, and horrible bunions on their feet. (Ashi barai, or foot sweep, does not for beautiful feet make. ) Thick, Prussian-like necks are de rigueur, as are enormous pectorals and oversized arms. If one of John Aspinall's gorillas could see us, he'd feel right at home.

After the weigh-in, which I made with five kilos to spare, comes the training. …

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