How Brazil mas­tered a Ja­panese a

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

FRENCH­MAN Ge­orges Me­hdi speaks per­fect Por­tuguese, so there’s no prob­lem com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the ranks of Brazil­ian judo black belts. But when he gives lessons in Ja­panese dis­ci­pline, they don’t seem to un­der­stand.

“When I start to talk, you must sit,” the 86-year-old judo master, who has a rare ninth dan belt, rep­ri­mands the more than 100 ju­dokas at­tend­ing a master class in a Rio de Janeiro gym.

“This is judo, not where you come to laugh!”

Star­tled, the Brazil­ians, all adults and many of them in­struc­tors them­selves, fall silent – and sit.

Judo, a more than cen­tury-old Ja­panese mar­tial art im­bued with no­tions of dis­ci­pline, re­spect and hi­er­ar­chy, might sound cul­tur­ally a world away from Brazil, a coun­try so re­laxed as to verge fre­quently on chaos.

Yet Brazil has be­come a judo pow­er­house, with 19 Olympic medals and ex­pec­ta­tions of more next month when Rio will be the first South Amer­i­can city to host the Sum­mer Games.

Ex­otic roots Brazil’s world-girdling jour­ney from judo zero to podium reg­u­lar is as twisted as the most com­pli­cated judo throw.

The sport’s founder, Jig­oro Kano, spread judo to Europe and the Amer­i­cas around the turn of the 20th cen­tury, but Brazil was slow to catch on.

For decades, judo re­mained largely re­stricted to the Ja­panese im­mi­grant com­mu­nity based in Sao Paulo. When Brazil won its first judo Olympic medal in 1972, it was thanks to Chi­aki Ishii, a Ja­panese-born and raised im­mi­grant.

By then, though, the sport was fi­nally go­ing main­stream and another im­mi­grant – this time a French­man-turned-Brazil­ian with a love of Ja­pan – was part of the rea­son.

Me­hdi launched his judo ca­reer in Brazil in the early 1950s af­ter ar­riv­ing in the coun­try when he was about 17, hav­ing left be­hind his home­town of Saint-Eti­enne and the lin­ger­ing shadow of World War II.

“I didn’t want to stay in France any more. I was fight­ing in the streets ev­ery day,” he said dur­ing a break at the master class. “My mother was fed up with me.”

Ris­ing rapidly through Brazil’s judo ranks and be­com­ing a nat­u­ralised citizen, Me­hdi be­come a re­peat na­tional cham­pion, even fight­ing well above his 82 kilo­grams (180 pounds).

“But then af­ter be­ing Brazil­ian cham­pion in all cat­e­gories, I un­der­stood that I didn’t know any­thing,” Me­hdi says. “So I de­cided to go to Ja­pan.”

Deeper val­ues Dur­ing al­most five years un­der Ja­panese masters like the leg­endary Isao Okano, Me­hdi says he learned what was re­ally miss­ing back in Brazil – not so much tech­nique but rather judo’s deeper qual­i­ties.

“Dis­ci­pline, ed­u­ca­tion, tra­di­tions and be­ing se­ri­ous. The Brazil­ians didn’t have any of that,” he said.

Upon his re­turn to Rio, Me­hdi re­mained one of Brazil’s top ju­dokas, win­ning medals in the 1963 and 1967 Pan-Amer­i­can Games, and be­came na­tional coach.

With a rep­u­ta­tion for strict­ness and ded­i­ca­tion, he in­tro­duced mod­ern meth­ods like cir­cuit train­ing and pushed the sport out of the mar­gins, top­ping up his knowl­edge with reg­u­lar vis­its to Ja­pan.

To­day, Brazil is ninth in the Olympic judo medal haul, if you count the Soviet Union. That’s far be­hind the sport’s kings Ja­pan, France and South Korea, but very much elite.

At the Rio Games, the judo team hopes to make the most of home ad­van­tage, which au­to­mat­i­cally en­sured places in ev­ery weight class.

Oswaldo Si­moes, a vet­eran of the 1980 Brazil­ian Olympic team in Moscow, reck­ons the men’s and women’s teams could each get three medals.

“To­day judo has be­come a tra­di­tion in Brazil. It’s on ev­ery cor­ner – and Ge­orges Me­hdi was part of that,” said the 63-year-old Si­moes, a sev­enth dan black belt who was a Pan-Amer­i­can cham­pion and now teaches.

Dis­ci­pline and Brazil­ians If dis­ci­pline was the root of Me­hdi’s suc­cess, his purist ap­proach may have also led to his decade-long na­tional coach­ing and play­ing ca­reer end­ing in ac­ri­mony.

He had a ma­jor row with the Brazil­ian Judo Con­fed­er­a­tion over what he says was im­proper be­hav­iour dur­ing the 1967 World Cham­pi­onships at Salt Lake City.

“I was ex­pelled by the con­fed­er­a­tion be­cause I was very strict,” he said, adding that he still finds “Brazil­ians are badly brought up”.

Af­ter­ward, Me­hdi ded­i­cated him­self to teach­ing around the world, but even now his in­ten­sity can take his adopted com­pa­tri­ots by sur­prise.

Dur­ing the master class, Me­hdi, who still has deadly throw­ing skills de­spite his age, fre­quently ex­pressed ex­as­per­a­tion.

“When I call you to come, you don’t shuf­fle over!” Me­hdi boomed at a black belt. “In Ja­pan you’d never do that. You’d come run­ning. So go back and come prop­erly!”

Va­nia Ben­za­quen, a 46-year-old ju­doka who trains reg­u­larly with Me­hdi at his club in south­ern Rio, said, “You go to some academies in Brazil and you’ll see peo­ple ly­ing on the tatami talk­ing and laugh­ing. Not with him, though.”

“He de­mands we pay at­ten­tion to de­tail.” –

Pho­tos: AFP

Eighty-six-year-old French-Brazil­ian Ge­orges Me­hdi (left), 9th dan in judo, in­structs Brazil­ian ju­dokas at the Brazil­ian spe­cial po­lice unit head­quar­ters in Rio de Janeiro on July 2.

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