It was shocking. When Or Sasson of Israel extended his hand to Islam El Shehaby of Egypt to express a match well fought at the Rio Olympics, the Egyptian turned and walked away.
There were no words in anger, no fists raised in threat. But in the world of sportsmanship, and more specifically in the gruff quietude of judo, the action of El Shehaby was akin to a slap in the face.
In Judo, there is an expectation of restraint and calmness, regardless of whether one makes the perfect throw or is body slammed in twisting agony, whether one wins or loses. When Anton Geesink shocked all of Japan by handily defeating Akio Kaminaga to win the gold medal in the open division of the 1964 Olympics, Geesink did not revel in his victory. In fact, right after the referee tapped his shoulder to indicate his victory, Geesink had to deal with an unexpected breach of etiquette by Dutch fans who sought to storm the judo mat in victory. He jumped to his feet and walked towards them, his right hand extended in a halt sign, and a hard stare stopped them in their tracks.
The two competitors then kneeled facing each other, getting their judo-gi in order in a matter-of-fact manner. They stood and bowed. Geesink walked up to Kaminaga impassively, but when he reached over to offer a small hug to his competitor, Kaminaga offered a smile of resignation and happiness for the other, which in turn gave Geesink permission to smile back in relief.
James Bregman and his brotherhood of judoka understood this interaction to be proper.
Bregman won the bronze medal in the middleweight class in judo’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Summer Games of 1964. Some say, he should have had a shot at gold if not for a quick judgment call that went the other way.
Bregman had defeated Argentinian Rodolfo Perez to get to the medal round. He faced off against Wolfgang Hofmann of Germany for a chance at gold. Towards the middle of the match, Hofmann got Bregman in an arm bar, “an effective one” as Bregman put it. “He nearly broke my arm.” Bregman told me that he approached Hofmann with an uchimata, but Hofmann blocked it. Then Bregman performed a left ip-pon seoi-nage over the shoulder and threw Hofmann to the mat, but not for a full point. They rolled and Hofmann then got Bregman in an arm lock. Bregman was able to stand up and also got Hofmann off the mat.
According to Bregman, the rules of judo at the time stated that if a person is in an arm lock but is standing, and the person who is giving the arm lock is off the ground, then the referee is supposed to say “matte”, stopping the match briefly so that the judoka can re-set. And in fact, the referee did indeed say “matte“, which means “wait”. Hofmann either didn’t hear that, or ignored it, and continued with the arm lock. Bregman thinking his arm was about to break, tapped out and gave up. In that instant, the referee simply ignored the fact that he had said “matte“, and awarded the match to Hofmann.
“I’m like, ‘what'”, said Bregman. “I’m in a lot of pain holding my elbow walking off the mat. But in judo, you don’t say a word, you show no emotion, and you honor your opponent as a victor, in a gentlemanly fashion. And you accept the referee’s judgment.”
What was more important was how he was greeted by his colleagues at Meiji University, home of the toughest judoka in the world in the 1960s. “When I won the bronze, the Japanese judoka came over and congratulated me and hugged me. It was like Meiji had won a gold medal. They were ecstatic for me.”