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TOKYO – Edson Madeira was having trouble finding the right words. Nothing he thought about could do justice to the emotions he was feeling.
After a while, after a quick prompt, he nodded.
– Yes, that’s it, he said. “It’s like Mecca. It’s like the Mecca of judo.
Madeira, a Mozambican coach, had just completed a training session on the fifth floor of the Kodokan Judo Institute. For judokas, the institute is revered as something akin to a holy place: the place where the sport began over a century ago.
Madeira smiles thinking of the first time he had been here 11 years ago. It is a pilgrimage, he said, that any serious athlete in the sport must make. There is something in the air in this seven-story building in central Tokyo, he said, something different from anywhere else judo has been practiced since it was sent out to the world by the founder of the sport, Kano Jigoro, one of the most respected. figures of Japanese sport.
Participating in the Olympics in the spiritual home of judo therefore adds another layer of excitement – as well as solemnity – for the judokas and their coaches who have gathered this month from around the world.
On Wednesday, as preparations continued for the start of the Olympic judo competition on Saturday, buses were arriving at regular intervals to disgorging groups of competitors in front of a set of banal gates. Once they took off their shoes and took a few steps inside, however, it quickly became apparent that they were entering a special place.
Soon they spread out over several floors and relaxed inside spartan dojos infused with a scent emanating from the pine walls.
Working under a portrait of Kano, Ferdinand Karapetyan, former European champion in the 73 kilograms (around 160 pounds) category, practiced a series of takedowns with his trainer, Hovhannes Davtyan. Each effort made a thud and shook the ground as Davtyan’s back hit an elastic blue carpet.
Karapetyan said he believed that the opportunity to prepare for Kodokan, in this country with a rich judo heritage, might push athletes to do better than they perhaps would have done in another city, in another place.
Even without spectators to cheer on its athletes, Japan is expected to dominate the medal table when the eight-day competition kicks off at Nippon Budokan, the site built to host judo events when the Games were last held in Tokyo in 1964.
“We have come here to show the world that it is not only the Japanese who can fight,” Karapetyan said.
The global cast that came together was best seen inside Kodokan’s largest dojo, a sprawling rectangle spanning almost the entire seventh floor. There in one corner, a training group of athletes from Algeria and Jordan stopped for afternoon prayer. Right in front of them, two Croatian teammates practiced holds and blocking techniques. Next to them, a lightweight competitor was attempting to perfect a teardown involving an ankle sweep.
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The whole scene – the babbling of overlapping instructions in English with Arabic, Russian and Jamaican accents, the various national flags on the backs of uniforms – was a testament to the growth of the sport since Kano established a training school. on the site in 1882.
While the center has changed over the past century, with new facilities – including dorms and a restaurant – added as interest grows, the founder’s presence continues to be keenly felt. With framed portraits of Kano carefully placed in every room and panels describing his aphorisms or rules of conduct that every Kodokan trainee is expected to follow, the past is an integral part of the present.
“Every judoka should come and train here and feel this culture,” said Madeira, a regular visitor to the Kodokan. Francis Moola, a Zambian coach, nodded vigorously in agreement. He made his first pilgrimage to the site in 1997, and said there was still no such thing.
The moment the athletes walk through the doors of the center and place their shoes on the shelves that line its entrance, he said, they know they are entering a sacred space: “We are now in the world of judo. “