In the Spiritual House of Judo, Pilgrims Flow In During Games

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TOKYO – Edson Madeira was having trouble finding the right words. Nothing he thought could do justice to the feelings he felt.

After a while, after a little warning, he nodded.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he said. “It’s like Mecca. It’s like Mecca for judo.”

Madeira, a coach from Mozambique, had just finished a workout on the fifth floor of the Kodokan Judo Institute. For judokas, the institute enjoys a similar veneration as a sacred place: where the sport began more than a century ago.

Madeira smiled at the thought of her first coming here 11 years ago. That said, it’s a pilgrimage that any athlete serious about sports should make. There’s something in the air in this seven-story building in central Tokyo, he said, something that hasn’t been done anywhere else since he was sent into the world by one of judo’s most respected, founder of the sport, Kano Jigoro. Figures in Japanese sports.

Competing in the spiritual home of judo at the Olympics adds another layer of excitement and seriousness to the judokas and their trainers gathering from around the world this month.

On Wednesday, as preparations continued for the start of Saturday’s Olympic judo competition, buses arrived at regular intervals in front of a series of notable gates to unload rival groups. As they took off their shoes and took a few steps inside, it was quickly clear that they had entered a private place.

Soon they spread over several floors and soared inside the spartan dojos filled with a scent emanating from the pinewood walls.

Ferdinand Karapetyan, a former European champion in the 73 kilograms category (about 160 pounds), did a series of takedowns with his coach, Hovhannes Davtyan, while working under Jigoro’s portrait. Every effort caused a rumbling sound and the floor shook as Davtyan’s back slammed against a spring-loaded blue mat.

Karapetyan said that in this country with a rich judo heritage, he thinks that the opportunity to train at Kodokan can push the athletes to do better than they could in another city.

Even with no spectators to cheer on the athletes, Japan is expected to dominate the medal table when the eight-day competition begins. The games were last held in Tokyo in 1964..

“We came here only to show the world that the Japanese cannot fight,” Karapetyan said.

The assembled global cast is best seen in Kodokan’s largest dojo, a sprawling rectangle that takes up nearly the entirety of the seventh floor. There, in one corner, a training group of athletes from Algeria and Jordan took a break for afternoon prayers. Directly opposite, two Croatian teammates practiced holding and blocking techniques. Next to them, a lightweight competitor was trying to perfect a takedown that involved sweeping the ankle.

The entire scene—the babble of overlapping instructions in Arabic, Russian, and Jamaican-inspired English, the various national flags on the backs of the uniforms—has witnessed the growth of the sport since Jigoro established a training school on the field in 1882.

While the center has changed over the past century, the founder’s presence remains sharply felt, with new facilities such as sleeping rooms and a restaurant added as interest grows. The past is largely a part of the present, with Jigoro’s framed portraits and aphorisms neatly placed in each room, or his boards outlining the code of conduct that each Kodokan trainee must follow.

“Every judoka should come here to train and feel this culture,” said Madeira, who regularly visits the Kodokan. Francis Moola, a Zambian coach, nodded. He made his first pilgrimage to the region in 1997 and said there is still no such place.

He said that the moment the athletes entered the center and put their shoes on the shelves at the entrance, they knew they were entering a sacred space: “We are now in the world of judo.”

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