” Sport has become the language of the world, a common denominator that breaks walls and barriers … it’s a great tool for progress and development”, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement during a ceremony in Geneva, three months before the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. The celebration of the spirit of judo at the service of peace and development produces an identical discourse which affirms its supreme ambition in a maxim “mutual aid and mutual prosperity” and in a formula as evocative as it is enigmatic: “judo is more than a sport”.
A first question arises. Should we consider that there are invariant dispositions of human nature that lead to privileging the same values regardless of the difference of epochs and cultural, political and social environments? To adopt this point of view would be to deny the mosaic of currents and specificities constructed over time, to apprehend judo only in an allegedly original and pure form.
The history of judo and its values is made of continuities and breaks. I will only be interested here in the most recent, that of the beginning of the twenty-first century. This choice is justified by two main reasons. The first one is internal. It is linked to profound changes in the direction of world judo. The second one is external. It refers to the place that Judo occupies in its host societies, to the role it plays in practitioners’ daily lives.
The first element of rupture occurred during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. On the morning of the competition the twice Iranian world champion, Arash Miresmaeili, arrives at the weigh-in and the electronic scale displays 72.4 kg, a weight well beyond the limit of 66 kg in his category. Political diktat forbidding the athlete to face an Israeli opponent or health problem that resulted in accidental overweight? The international press seized the case. The whole world suddenly saw another facet of the Japanese method. Like other sports, judo has become an ideological vehicle.
Back in his country, Miresmaeili is treated as a hero and rewarded as an authentic Olympic champion. The cautious reactions or even the duplicity of some of the IFJ members at the time are denounced by the journalists. The suspension imposed on a South Korean coach for violently striking an eliminated athlete accentuates the distance to the education principles so frequently advocated. The time of values is suspended, put in parentheses, like a derisory bastion facing political and economic stakes.
The second element of rupture crops up three years later. It corresponds to the election of a new president of the International Judo Federation. The year 2007 is the beginning of a new era. It marks the alignment of judo on the model of the professional sport organized in circuit of international events putting judo performance in the spotlight.
On the one hand, this political choice results in a radical transformation that has immediate repercussions in all places, at all levels and for the actors of the system. On the other hand, the process accelerates the fragmentation of Kano’s method and its reification. Yesterday, being a judoka referred to a practice whose facets comprised the same entity. Today, judo is subdivided into separate activities aimed at health, personal defense, motor and civic education or sport. These practices appear as so many consumer products offered to practitioners who cohabit without ever meeting.
After having evoked this time of ruptures and the heavy trends of evolution, let us look for a moment at the nature and permanence of the values that fuel the official discourse. By inventing and by promoting judo, Jigoro Kano imposed on the world a new way of fighting. He set in space and time a particular vision of the Japanese intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century. His method was explicitly opposed to traditional styles of combat that did not opt for a reasoned control of physical violence. As soon as they were imported into Western countries, the codes and usages of Japanese art were merged into the sociability registers of those who shared the same vision of man and the world. Mostly from the upper classes, these pioneers were also passionate about the Orient. They became the first to transmit judo culture. By privileging the intelligence, the flexibility and the speed on the expression of the brutal force, the judo that they liked affirmed itself as the most civilized and the most intellectualized of the disciplines of combat. Norbert Elias’s analyzes shed a remarkable light on the role of sport in the social control of violence. The evolution of judo provides us with a very revealing example.
The values conveyed by Japanese art thus appear in a new light. Enriched by a project of social harmony, the principles of “better use of energy” and “mutual aid and mutual prosperity” are part of a positivist approach of modernity and social progress. In contrast to earlier periods, 21st century society is characterized by the rise of individualism which stands in the way of unreserved adherence to the values of judo and its ethics. The competition has plunged the Japanese method into the era of rationality. The sacred has slipped to the profane. The imaginary scenes of the virtues of the East has long been unveiled. The myth of the invincibility of Japanese art is strongly contested by other martial arts. While yesterday’s judo has made generations dream, the current collective representations are divided between the sporting exploits of the elite and the learning games of children in judogi. The heroic figures, the symbols, the founding texts that so seduced the first practitioners gave way to comic characters whose images are stick down paper diplomas.
Initiated in Provence, France, but largely taken over, even plagiarized, the moral code of the French judo as today replaced official morality. Adopted by many national and international bodies, the moral code of judo is nonetheless a reinvented tradition whose main historical basis is a nostalgic reaction to a context considered decadent. The initiative of a person whose idealism, as we know it, is part of a desire to respond to a sports movement that would have removed judo from its virtues and the philosophy of its origins. But, the examination of the retained values, of their number, of their order of presentation, of their definitions … can only lead to a reflection on the function which is implicitly assigned to them.