‘My legs are leaden, my throat is dry and I feel slightly sick with anxiety. As I make my way towards the arena the roar of the crowd gets louder. One question keeps edging into the small part of my mind which is functioning normally: what on earth are the combatants going through if I feel like this when I’ve just come along to watch?’
This is the opening salvo of Mark Law’s excellent The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo, published last year and prominently displayed in Brussels last week at the ugly but gigantesque Centre Sportif, Kinetix, central Brussels, and about 25 klicks from the place Napoleon met his Waterloo. An enormous 200-foot poster announces that this is the 10th World Masters Judo Championships, 24–29 June 2008, as if it had slipped my mind. Upon arrival on the Tuesday, Mark Law’s words come immediately to mind. The butterflies are tripping the light fantastic inside my gut and I still have two days to go before the action starts. The worst part is the waiting to register, followed by the weigh-in. Sixteen hundred competitors from 29 countries mean a lot of beef, and the kind of beef that makes jumping the queue dangerous to one’s health.
Violence is exciting, according to many writers, but only for the young. When I competed in karate tournaments during the Sixties and Seventies, the excitement grew as the day got nearer, then total panic set in. By 1983, aged 48, I couldn’t take it any longer and called it a day as far as karate tournaments were concerned. Judo, however, is less violent than karate, although there are more injuries due to the somersaults, foot sweeps and the whacking one gets on the floor from one’s opponent, who more often than not rides on top of you while you crash-land. There are also painful arm bars and choke holds which can put one to sleep as easily as picking up a hooker in a St Tropez nightclub.
One doesn’t think about such matters while waiting to weigh in among hundreds of naked men, few of whom have won any sanitary prizes, especially those from the old Soviet Union. One just tries to look cool and detached, occasionally cracking a joke about a particularly cauliflowered competitor. Ninety-nine per cent of professional judokas have cauliflower ears, and horrible bunions on their feet. (Ashi barai, or foot sweep, does not for beautiful feet make.) Thick, Prussian-like necks are de rigueur, as are enormous pectorals and oversized arms. If one of John Aspinall’s gorillas could see us, he’d feel right at home.
After the weigh-in, which I made with five kilos to spare, comes the training. This is another bad part. One’s out of breath from the word go, mostly due to nerves. There are Japanese throwing themselves around with abandon, and Simian Ukrainians grunting like wild boars, not to mention flamboyant Frenchmen executing incredible throws of one another — none of which, incidentally, they will attempt during the real thing.After 20 minutes, my coach, Teimoc Ono-Johnston, half Japanese, half English and 150 per cent Samurai, calls it a day and we head back to a soulless hotel not far from the Muslim section of Brussels.
A few words about Brussels. It is Beirut without the good weather. Once upon a time the place was cosy, with great food and the most promiscuous women in Europe. No longer. It is as if the Islamists have put a damper on all things fun. Sullen young men hang about, and their women, their heads covered, shuffle the kids around, and, boy, do these people have kids. Brussels is the home of endemic corruption, lack of transparency and accountability. It is the place bent politicians send those they owe favours to for crimes past. If Brussels is what the rest of European cities will become, Patagonia or Wyoming here I come. But back to judo.
The night before the contest one sleeps very badly. It gets worse at breakfast because one’s not at all hungry. The butterflies really start to zing once inside the arena waiting to be called. And wait one does, for hours. Teimoc quickly won a gold medal in his age group, pinning a humongous German after having thrown a giant Russian in the semis, and having choked out three Frenchmen in the early rounds. He then came around trying to steady my nerves. ‘Only ashi barai and leg grab,’ he kept repeating. Then my name was called and suddenly the butterflies simmered down. As soon as one bows and hears ‘Hajime’ fury sets in. One circles and grabs, feet sweeping, hands darting, always using the head as a ram. Never has courtesy (all matches begin with a bow to one’s opponent and a bow to the ref.) disappeared so quickly. I luck through the early rounds and in the final, after a brutal semi that went into overtime, I manage to throw my Canadian opponent with force enough for his head to bounce off the tatami and the gold was mine. The rest was a blur until I stood on the podium and heard the words ‘Champion du monde’.
PS. On Tuesday, 8 July, there is a memorial service for the great George MacDonald Fraser in St John’s Smith Square. There will be bands and speakers, and all good Brits should try to make it. I, a Greek, will certainly be there.