Magazine article The Spectator

The Pajama Game

Magazine article The Spectator

The Pajama Game

Article excerpt

A body in flight is a pleasing sight and the air over Birmingham has been thick with them in recent days. Figures in blue or white pajamas whirl in high arcs to be banged to the green mats. Some victims are strangled or pinned to the floor, but mostly it is just whoosh and thump. Such sweet thunder. If anything should cure us of whingeing about our performance at rugby, it is the World Judo Championships, where Britain has had a glorious triumph.

Ignore the bandaged fingers, the cauliflower ears, the yelps and grunts, the tears. In the darting feet and whippy, explosive acrobatics is a choreography of such speed, intricacy and elegance as to make Balanchine blanch, though there is also, naturally, a sinister undercurrent to the business.

Contestants are led to their mat by officials and followed in single file by their coach and the team doctor. It looks a bit like a firing squad and indeed shooting would spare some of them the unique indignities that judo inflicts on a loser. They are thrown around like bags of laundry, tortured into submission and sat upon while they thrash around like dying carp. True, it's bad for an outwitted goalkeeper sitting in the mud with the net still twitching behind him and the opposing team having group sex on his front lawn. But at least the game goes on. In judo, when a fighter is thrown flat on his back, it's like a knockout - that's the end of it. A chap can train for years and cross half the globe to get to a major competition. Then he steps on to the mat for his first fight, bows twice as etiquette demands, and suddenly some shaven-headed psychopath from Kazakhstan hurtles at him and bangs him over and out of the competition within four seconds. It doesn't matter that the crowd sympathises; what does he tell the folks at home?

It is this gladiatorial edge, this symbolic death, that is part of the appeal for the fans meandering around the Birmingham concourse amid the stench of molten pizza cheese. Certainly, rugby offers the crump of the scrum, but the ball acts as some hapless ambassador scurrying between warring armies. Judo cuts out the middle man. Why throw a ball around when you can throw people? The Championships have presented the most dazzling and ferocious display of speed, power and technique people are likely to witness in this country for years. …

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