BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Forget the strength and leg sweeps that quickly knock an opponent to the ground.
A victory in judo now requires much more technique.
The changes, introduced two years ago by the International Judo Federation, favor Brazilian athletes, who won three silver medals and a bronze at the Judo World Championships in Tokyo earlier this month.
In 2009, Brazil left the World Championships in Rotterdam, Holland, without a single medal.
With the new rules, matches have been reduced from five to four minutes, the double-leg takedown has been eliminated, and the leg grab, a movement that requires great strength and knocks the opponent to the ground more quickly, also has been banned.
Now, if you grab your opponent’s leg, you lose.
The outlawing of the maneuver has contributed to a shift in power.
European judo fighters, known and praised for their strength, have been surpassed by the Japanese, whose emphasis centers on traditional techniques.
At the World Championships in their home country, the Japanese won 22 medals, including 10 gold, putting them atop the medal count.
But the Brazilians, who are influenced by Japanese judo, also placed well at the tournament.
Sarah Menezes took bronze in the 48 kilogram (105 pound) class.
“The sport is less dangerous and more agile now,” she says. “The Europeans lost because of this, because they always have relied on strength and leg grabs. The Japanese and Brazilian fighters were able to adapt better to the new rule. It’s better for us.”
Judo fighter Ketleyn Quadros, the first Brazilian to win an individual Olympic medal, favors the new rule.
“For me it’s great,” says Ketleyn, who won bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. “I am a more technical and skillful athlete. And I have to confess, the leg grab was never my strong point. I never knew how to attack well with it or defend against it.”
Ketleyn said Europeans have the most to lose because of the new rule.
“But I believe that they have the capacity to overcome it,” she says. “In a little while, all of them will improve their technique. All the judo fighters learn these things from childhood. The question is how to apply what you’ve learned in real matches.”
Henrique Guimarães, coach of the Brazilian men’s judo team, says the changes have returned judo to its essence.
The reason? “Ju Do,” in Japanese, means “the gentle way.”
“Strength, which had been gaining more prominence in the sport, has now lost out to technique, which really needed to be admired and practiced more,” Guimarães says. “It’s a return to the sport’s origins.”
But for Tiago Camilo, world champion in 2007, silver medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games, the changes are challenging. But he also said the rule changes can make the sport more popular.
“I’m sure that it’s better this way to watch a judo match on TV or from the grandstands,” says Camilo, who placed seventh in the 90-kilogram (198 pound) weight class at the World Championships this month. “The sport has become more fluid and, more importantly, now there are more ippons (the perfect strike in the sport).”
But some Brazilians don’t like the change.
Flávio Canto, a bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, is regarded as the best leg grab specialist in Brazil.
“Of course I know other moves,” Canto says. “Of course, I don’t have to relearn how to fight judo, but I don’t like this change.”