THE FATHER of men's judo was a small, quiet, disciplined athlete who lived in Japan a century ago. No big surprise there. The mother of women's judo? She's a large, loud, Jewish great-grandma who lives in Brooklyn, and she's a big surprise every day.
Next week Rena Glickman's matriarchy of the sport becomes official. Japan's government has conferred that title upon her and will also present her with one of its highest honors, the Emperor's Order of the Rising Sun.
But don't go looking for Rena Glickman in the proclamation. Nicknamed Rusty after a local mutt six decades ago, surnamed Kanokogi when she married an immigrant Japanese martial-arts expert in 1954, the 73-year-old suffered violent labor pains to give birth to her sport. She had to flatten her breasts with Ace bandages and pretend to be a man to practice judo in New York City in the '50s, change clothes in the broom closets of the dojos where she competed, enter tournaments under male aliases—and even surrender her title after she won her weight division at the '59 New York State YMCA championships and her ruse was discovered.
She had to rant and roar in local, national and international meetings to persuade officials to open the door to women; had to bellow and bully history's first women's judo competition, and eventually its first world championships, into existence, running up $25,000 on her credit card to stage the initial one at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum in 1980. She had to collect 25,000 signatures and threaten legal action for sex discrimination against the International Olympic Committee and its TV partner, ABC, to get women's judo into the Games in '88.
November 24, 2008
She had to summon every ounce of spunk from a childhood among carnival freaks on the Coney Island boardwalk, where her mom sold hot dogs, and from her teens dodging zip-gun bullets as the leader of a gang named the Apaches. But she did it.
And she did it wearing Mickey Mouse shirts and Donald Duck socks. "I love Mickey Mouse because he never screwed anyone, but even Donald Duck you gotta keep your eye on," she'd boom in that barrel-bottom voice deepened by years of barking at her 14 weekly judo classes. She also found time, in between, to coach the 1988 Olympic team, officiate the '96 Olympics and provide NBC's color commentary at the 2004 Games.
Naturally, thinking it was just old battle wounds that made her shoulder ache last year, she went right on blitzing from one dojo to another for six anguished months before consulting a doctor. The verdict: multiple myeloma, a devastating cancer that devours the bones. Now she spends her days receiving chemotherapy dripped from plastic bags, recovering from radiation and slipping—not storming—into tournaments to measure the progress of referees.
Come this Monday, she'll have a new necklace to wear: a red-and-white chrysanthemum with golden rays dangling from a colorful ribbon. Jigoro Kano, judo's papa, received his Order of the Rising Sun after his death in 1938. It's high time for judo's most unlikely mama.
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Read Gary Smith's original story on Rusty Kanokogi at SI.com/judo.