by Sid Kelly
All sports have to endure difficulties which are the by-products of politics. However, no other sport but judo has a reason that causes these by-products to be so inflated. And this reason is judo’s longstanding curse: the insidious, despicable, inherited system of ranking.
Judo rank is awarded for ability and service. Ideally, higher ranks should only be awarded when lower ranks were gained by ability at a young age, and service ranks acquired at a later age. If service rank is started at a young age or at an age past one’s physical prime, very high rank should be impossible to attain. Otherwise, it gives the impression that players of limited ability are far more talented and capable than they really are. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and judo rank can and is being acquired through other means. Judo rank can now be, and has been, acquired through financial purchase, influence, nepotism, and, most of all, presenting a highly distorted view of one’s judo services rendered. This means, after the passing of time, a player of limited talent and ability can appear equal to, or, in some cases, better than another player of superior talent and achievements. Repeat 6-8 times. Use fresh partners for each work bout.
All too often it is difficult to get a clear picture of things when we are very close to or deeply immersed in a situation. Things become much clearer when we step outside our environment and view things from a different perspective. To help us understand our judo situation more clearly, let us consider what happens when another sport awards honors to its participants through a system of ranking. We can consider any sport, because the historical consistency of human nature tells us the results would be the same. Let us imagine we are deeply involved in the sport of cycling and asking ourselves, ‘What is happening to our dearly beloved sport of cycling?’ Let us evaluate the effect of what this accursed, despicable thing called rank has on people, and ultimately on the sport of cycling.
Let’s say a man wins for three consecutive years the cycling race the Tour de France. Winning this event is cycling’s most illustrious prize. By winning this, plus some other notable events, the cyclist is awarded, at the age of 28, eight stripes. The highest award possible is 20 stripes. He now retires from competition and devotes the rest of his life to the service of cycling. In his 70th year, he is awarded the revered rank of 19 stripes. A very high honor indeed, as only a few men in the world are deserving of such a meritorious award.
Now competing in the same Tour de France race was another man who came 179th. Not bad considering the caliber of the race, but not in the same class as our man who came in first for three consecutive years. In his local town Mr. 179 is considered a cycling expert. However, when truly tested in world class competition he had not trained hard enough, and did not fully understand what was needed to go the extra mile (no pun intended) to win the race. But he was fanatically interested in cycling. He would astound the novice and seasoned player with information that flowed from his smooth tongue. He knew the name of every bicycle, their places of manufacture, the number of spokes on different size wheels, materials of bicycle components, number of links in different length chains, gear ratios of sprockets, correct greases and lubrications, brake lining materials, names of present and past champions, and who had won what and when and where.
Our Mr. 179 wanted very much to be recognized, and he knew that he could be, because he understood how the ranking system was set up. He knew it was possible, because the powers that be in the cycling world had decided, in their wisdom, that awarding cycling rank through service would help the sport grow. The false logic behind all this was that cycling would become more popular, and standards would improve, if people were motivated and rewarded and recognized with a service rank. This recognition was not done with a belt, as, say, in the martial arts, but by having the bike painted a certain color. So when a person rode by, however slowly, people would drool and say, “Wow, there goes a 15-striper.” Besides earning stripes for ability, stripes could be attained by accumulating service points for attending cycling events, helping at cycling events, attending cycling camps, teaching at cycling clubs, assistant teaching at cycling clubs, officiating at events, getting news and sports media to attend functions, and the list went on and on, including, and especially, raising money for, or donating money to, the cycling association.
Not only did our Mr. 179 assiduously pursue his path of accumulating points, he was also very conscious of the field of public relations. Whenever a camera clicked, he was there in front of it. In the national cycling quarterly magazine he was shown rubbing shoulders with the greats, giving out trophies to 10 year olds, and reporting on clinics he had given. As the years rolled by our Mr. 179 would submit his paperwork in a timely manner to the promotion board. He knew each person on the board intimately, as many of them were of the same ilk. They, too, had worked conscientiously on their points, and had also submitted their paperwork in a timely manner. Eventually, Mr. 179 was awarded his 19 stripes. He was now respected and revered as much as the man who had placed first for three consecutive years in the Tour de France race. But what was more amazing than Mr. 179 becoming Mr. 19 stripes was, he really believed he was equal to the Tour de France winner and other champions. Why shouldn’t he? After all, he had put his time in, and he knew the right type of grease to use on different chains at different altitudes.
As the generations passed by, unhealthy signs began to appear through the cause and effect of awarding stripes. Many champions retired from the cycling scene. This was because they were either too old to challenge the younger competitors, or they were fed up with being surrounded by people far less capable and experienced than themselves, but who were more politically oriented and continually inflating their past achievements. Some of these people had, through their consummate long-term machinations, been promoted to equal and even higher ranks than these ex-champions. On the other hand, these wannabes who had never had the satisfaction of winning high cycling accolades plodded on, driven by several reasons. They plodded on because, to give credit where credit is due, they had a genuine interest in cycling. But the real motivating factor was, they realized that they could be awarded higher and higher stripes, as others had done before– others who had never won a noteworthy cycling race in their lives.
In time, the final outcome of all this was to have disastrous effects on the standards and popularity of cycling. All the committees and sub-committees that made important decisions consisted mainly of people with watered- down stripes. These committees allocated more money for buying buildings, computers, office equipment, and marketing paraphernalia than they did on any training programs, whether it be for top athletes preparing for international events or up-and-coming cyclists. They made the requirements for stripes more and more service oriented. They selected trainers for teams who were people like themselves. That is, trainers who did not know what they were doing when it really came down to the nitty-gritty of winning a cycling race. So, in the long run, the results were inevitable. There were no results. None of their players ever placed anywhere in world events. There were occasional moments of glory, but it was usually when an individual went abroad to train under the tutelage of his father or some foreign coach. Never through the system that had become saturated with self-anointed high-stripers did a squad of capable cyclists emerge. The country finally became a joke in the international cycling community. And this was sad, because there were many people who were sincerely trying to help the sport of cycling.
In the final analysis, the root reason why all this happened was that leaders in other countries took their cycling very seriously, whereas, in the country that had become an international joke, most of the leaders only took themselves very, very seriously.
So, the message to all of you that are interested in cycling is: When you read or hear or speak to someone who has the cycling rank of 15,16, 17, 18, or especially 19 stripes, and has never won a major competition in his or her life, or has not contributed to judo in a major way: THE BOOKS HAVE BEEN COOKED! YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE ON IT!