June 23, 2011

FRANKFURT—The worst part is the weigh-in: Hundreds of heavily muscled, cauliflower-eared, tattooed, menacing-looking sweaty men from Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Brazil, Canada, France, Hungary, the US—you name it—wait patiently and silently to step on the scales. Everyone holds his passport, which he is required to show once on the scales. It is a funny scene: naked men holding passports. It could be out of the gulag, as most fighters from Eastern Europe have shaven heads and very broad Slavic peasant faces.

By the time my turn came I was sick and tired of the way the International Judo Federation treats us athletes: No transport, only three hours to weigh in close to 1,200 competitors, and no chits for a meal afterward, especially for those who haven’t eaten in days trying to make weight. I was competing at 90 kilos but weighed 82 after three days of puking my guts out from gastroenteritis. I was the only one wearing a blazer and tie, as I had just got off an airplane, and I stepped onto the scales fully dressed and looking as bored and supercilious as I could. “What are you doing?” said the screw—sorry, the official. “Weighing in,” I spat back. “What do you think I’m doing, attending a cocktail party?” He eyed the scales, checked my passport, looked at the division I was competing in, and shrugged his shoulders. I was eight kilos under and fully dressed, and there was nothing he could do about it but check me in. I stepped off in my best Lady Bracknell manner while the rest of the mongoloids stared uncomprehendingly.

“It is a funny scene: naked men holding passports.”

Then comes the hard part. One sits in a lousy hotel room in a part of town where most people look Turkish, Arab, or African. One tries to read, but the mind keeps wandering off toward the Sportzentrum a couple of miles away. Who has entered and where are they from? Are the menacing-looking Russkis as good as advertised? What about the shaven-headed Jap that beat me last time? And those tough, tough Germans—are they back? The answer is yes on every count. This was the toughest and deepest field ever.

What bothers me about sportswriting is that no matter how knowledgeable the hack might be, no one—and I mean no one—knows what it’s really like until they’re on the mat facing the foe with a disinterested ref trying to act official. There is no goalkeeper behind you, no defenseman, no attacker up front—only you and that beastly subhuman across from you. Do that for fifty years or so, mano-a-mano every time, and then pick up the quill and write about it. But watching from the sidelines you do not really know. You think you do, but you know squat. The polite way of putting it is that fighting in judo, karate, or boxing tournaments is character-building. It tests one’s strength, but more so one’s character. Judo is one of the most tiring sports around. You’re at it nonstop and always full-out, no coasting or resting in between attacks. One’s at the limit almost from the start, and the temptation to quit is ever-present. And quitting is very easy. You try a complicated throw, it doesn’t work, and your problems are over—just quit. No, you gotta stay in the trenches, grunt it out, and fight for every inch in a war of attrition.


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