Magazine article The American Conservative

Winning in Pyjamas

Magazine article The American Conservative

Winning in Pyjamas

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. This is my

first major tournament and to say I am nervous is an understatement. I think it is because of the uncertainty of what I will face out there. 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 IVe just come along to watch?"

This is the opening paragraph of The Pyjama Game, a very comprehensive study of the violent world of judo by a gifted English writer, Mark Law. I admit that reading it did make me extra nervous, with memories of pre-tournament sleepless nights and stomach butterflies flooding back. Well, it ain't as bad as all that, although it can get rather hairy.

Judo has never caught on as a spectator sport in America, a sports-mad country that loves its violence in the boxing ring, in the ice rink, on the gridiron, and now in the octagon. The reason for this is simple. Anyone can follow a football match and make some plausible remark. But judo? It leaves most people uncomprehending and speechless. It is too fast, too subtle, too foreign. Anything can happen at any time.

I will give you an example, however self-serving: I lucked out in Brussels, Belgium, in June 2008 and won my semifinal at 90 kilos, age 70 and over, by a referee's decision. (There is one ref and two judges; all three vote.) In the final, my Canadian opponent, who outweighed me by at least 20 pounds and was a foot taller, was throwing me around the mat like the proverbial rag doll. He was an immensely experienced 5th Dan judo teacher, whereas I drink, smoke, and do other horrible things that athletes are not supposed to do.

With 30 seconds to go, the Canuck had me bent over like a pretzel when he made a bad mistake. I did a leg-pick and drove him across the mat, slamming him down with everything I had left in me. His head hit the mat first, and as it bounced off I landed on it for insurance purposes. AD three judges raised their right hands, signaling "Ippon." (A knockout.)

Out of the blue, the poor little Greek boy was world champion. The Canadian was muttering something about me being lucky until I reminded him of Napoleon's dictum that he'd rather have lucky generals than good ones. …

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