As hockey-mad Canadians have known for years and basketball-mad Americans have found out of late, few things are quite so sobering as being defeated, roundly and soundly, in a sport that you invented. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japanese, who invented judo a hundred years ago, are trying to come to grips with a humbling of truly Olympian proportions.
Japanese male judoists, who in previous Games had won 13 of 24 gold medals they had competed for, and never fewer than three in any one Olympics, had hoped to win four gold medals in Seoul. They brought back only one, as heavyweight Hitoshi Saito grabbed the gold on the final night. The three bronze medals that the Japanese picked up did put the Japanese right behind the Soviets (one silver, four bronzes) in judo medals won, but it was scant consolation for the Japanese tourists who rocked Changchung Gymnasium with cheers of "Nip-pon! Nip-pon!" only to depart, heads bowed, after each of their countrymen's losses. "It's better than nothing, but not much," said Yamasaki Mitsuo, one of those fans. "I feel great pity and shock."
Not that Japan's fall from the throne was entirely unexpected. In the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, South Korea shocked the Japanese by winning six of eight judo gold medals. But at last year's world championships in Essen, West Germany, the Japanese appeared to have regrouped; they won four of eight world titles to South Korea's one.
After that tournament, South Korea's judo officials decided that new training methods would be needed before the Olympics. During a monthlong camp at Korea Judo College before the start of the Games, coach Chang Eun-Kyung whipped the Korean team into shape with what was called Devil Training. For example, each Olympian was required to face 12 "sparring partners" in back-to-back five-minute matches. If the Olympian lost even one, the coach would "unleash the harshest words he could imagine to insult the loser," according to The Korea Herald, a not inconsiderable punishment in a culture that puts much stock in saving face.
The most dreaded Devil Drill was right out of Alfred Hitchcock's training handbook: Team members were taken to a secluded cemetery around midnight and forced to sit there by themselves for more than an hour in the darkness, pondering life from cradle to grave. Or something like that.
"This exercise built in our athletes guts and fighting spirit," says Chang. That odd bit of psychology appeared to have paid off; South Korea was the only nation to win two Olympic golds.
Japanese judo aficionados wonder whether their nation's athletes, softened by affluence, still possess such commitment. "In Japan judo has declined in popularity because of the very hard training," says Fukase Yoshiharu, a secondary school judo coach who somberly watched last week's competition from the stands. Others cite the fact that while Japan's coaches still concentrate on form and strategy, other countries have turned their attention to strength training.
"This sport used to be all technique, very little strength," says Kevin Asano of San Jose, who won the silver at 132 pounds. "Now you need both." Asano and Mike Swain, of Santa Clara, Calif., who ended up with the bronze at 156.5 pounds when Kerrith Brown of Great Britain was disqualified for using a banned substance, were the only U.S. male judoists to win medals.
After watching world champion Hitoshi Sugai lose his opening match to Frenchman Stèphane Traineau at 209 pounds, Fukase said, "The Japanese introduced judo, so we think we are the strongest in the world. But I have now seen with my own eyes. The Koreans are stronger."