The U.S. Open is always a good tournament for me to go to because in addition to the Judo, there’s the Judo politics too. I had the opportunity during the 2009 U.S. Open to sit down and talk to a few of our political leaders.
During the “State of USA Judo” meeting, I was sitting peacefully when Jose Rodriguez, our executive director, claimed that the International Judo Federation (IJF) had made decisions about Judo and there was nothing we could do about it! I’m not sure whether it was the Marine or the contrarian in me, but that defeatist statement sent me into orbit. I immediately challenged the assertion that we were impotent.
Mr. Rodriguez explained that the European Judo Union (EJU) and the African Judo Union (AJU) were voting in block and now dominated IJF politics. The EJU had provided the AJU with gis, mats, technical advisors, and coaching mentors, and now found itself beholden to the Europeans.
It is true that the EJU and AJU have some 97 votes, which is either a majority or very close to a majority vote. What is incomprehensible to me is that many countries go along with the majority vote in spite of not being in favor of the proposals. In other words, there are few opposition votes because of the fear that the IJF will punish countries for not getting on board. How can you overcome policies if you are not willing to stand up, speak your mind, and vote your conscience even if you know you’ll be on the losing side? Voting your conscience may help other nations to vote theirs. So Mr. Rodriguez is partially right: there is nothing we can do when nations don’t register opposition votes, or can be bought off with a few gifts.
I accept that USA Judo can’t change IJF policies just yet, but I would like to see us do two things: speak our mind and not vote with the flow when it obviously doesn’t benefit our athletes; and think about not implementing in the U.S. every twist and turn the IJF throws at us. What’s good for the IJF’s international events may not be good for the development of Judo in the IJF member nations.
During the 2009 U.S. Open, I managed to corral a very busy Eddie Liddie, USA Judo’s high performance director. I addressed with him my concerns about the drop off in the quality of players and the number of foreign nations participating in our international event.
I suggested to him that we return to the pool format that the U.S. Open used at its inception and for a number of years thereafter until it did away with it and retained the repechage system. In the old days, players were placed in 3- or 4-man round-robin pools, which guaranteed all players at least two or three fights. The top two players from each pool then moved on to the regular repechage tournament. This format, which is currently used for the Ladies Belgian Open, should help us attract more fighters, foreign and domestic, to our event. Mr. Liddie told me that he was contemplating a return to the pool system.
The other suggestion I had was that we should start using the mutual benefit and welfare mantra with foreign nations. For years, we have supported many small events in the Pan American Judo Union, like the Benito Juarez tournament in Mexico, but foreign nations have not reciprocated by supporting the U.S. Open. Without U.S. participation in some of these events, they become domestic events.
One of the ways to improve foreign participation is to place or remove foreign tournaments from our list of point-earning tournaments. This is apparently what Mr. Liddie did with the Puerto Rican Open. The event was withdrawn from our list. The reaction from Puerto Rico was immediate. Puerto Ricans attended the 2009 U.S. Open for the first time in many years. Let’s hope that Mr. Liddie does the same with the Benito Juarez tournament and others like it.
There is some talk that the U.S. Open might be obsolete, and that it should be abandoned. Many of our top players failed to show up this year. The new Olympic qualifying system will force them to bypass our event in favor of point-earning events. Foreign participation has fallen off. Yet, in spite of all of this, there is hope. Mr. Liddie is spending some of his development funds to bring in foreign players just like Frank Fullerton used to do out of his own pocket, and he has bought into the “you come to our event and we’ll come to your event” concept. The U.S. Open might not be much compared to other international events, but it is the only one we have. We need to build it up, if not for the few U.S. players who can win medals on the Olympic circuit, then for our up and coming players.