At Judo’s Spiritual Home, Pilgrims Pour In During the Games

TOKYO — Edson Madeira was struggling to summon the right words. Nothing he thought of could quite do justice to the emotions he was feeling.

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

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

Madeira, a coach from Mozambique, had just finished a training session on the fifth floor of the Kodokan Judo Institute. For judokas, the institute is revered as something akin to a holy site: the place where the sport started more than a century ago.

Madeira smiled as he thought about the first time he had come here, 11 years ago. It is a pilgrimage, he said, that any athlete serious about the sport must make. There is something in the air in this seven-story building in central Tokyo, he said, something that is different from anywhere else judo is practiced since it was sent out to the world by the sport’s founder, Kano Jigoro, one of the most respected figures in Japanese sports.

To compete at the Olympics in judo’s spiritual home, then, is adding another layer of excitement — as well as solemnity — for the judokas and their trainers 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 arrived at regular intervals to disgorge groups of competitors in front of a set of unremarkable doors. Once they removed their shoes and took a few steps inside, however, it quickly became clear that they were entering a special place.

Soon they fanned out across several floors and limbered up inside spartan dojos infused with a fragrance emanating from the pinewood walls.

Working under a portrait of Jigoro, Ferdinand Karapetyan, a former European champion in the 73-kilogram category (about 160 pounds), practiced a series of takedowns with his coach, Hovhannes Davtyan. Each effort elicited a thudding sound and shook the floor as Davtyan’s back slammed into a springy blue mat.

Karapetyan said he thought the opportunity to prepare at Kodokan, in this country with a rich judo heritage, might push athletes to do better than they perhaps would have in another city, in another place.

Even without spectators to cheer on its athletes, Japan is expected to dominate the medals table when the eight-day competition begins at the Nippon Budokan, the venue built to host judo events when the Games were last held in Tokyo in 1964.

“We came here to show the world that it’s not only the Japanese that can fight,” Karapetyan said.

The global cast that has assembled was best seen inside Kodokan’s largest dojo, a sprawling rectangle covering almost the entirety of the seventh floor. There, in one corner, a training group featuring athletes from Algeria and Jordan paused for afternoon prayers. Directly across from them, two Croatian teammates practiced holds and blocking techniques. Next to them, a lightweight contender was trying to perfect a takedown involving a sweep of the ankle.

The entire scene — the babble of overlapping instructions in Arabic, Russian and Jamaican-inflected English, the various national flags on the backs of uniforms — bore testimony to the growth of the sport since Jigoro first established a training school at the site in 1882.

While the center has changed over the past century, with new facilities — including sleeping quarters and a restaurant — added as interest grows, the founder’s presence continues to be keenly felt. With framed portraits of Jigoro carefully placed in each room and boards outlining his aphorisms or rules of conduct that each Kodokan trainee is required to follow, the past is very much part of the present.

“Every judoka should come to train here and to feel this culture,” said Madeira, a regular visitor to 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 nowhere quite like it.

The moment athletes walk through the center’s doors and place their shoes on the racks lining its entry, he said, they know they are entering a sacred space: “We are now in the world of judo.”