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Bregman and his bronze medal_from James Bregman’s personal collection.

It was October, 1964, the Olympics were in Tokyo, and the Japanese were expected to sweep their home-grown martial art. And in fact, Japanese took gold in three of the four weight-classes at the Tokyo Olympics.

American James Bregman won the bronze medal in the middle-weight class at the inaugural judo competition at the Olympic Games. His accomplishment was the result of years of training, as well as a dedication to mastering technique or “waza“, and being the best judoka he could possibly be. But it was never about winning a medal.

Bregman, like a handful of other determined foreign judoka in Japan, trained with members of Meiji University, the dominant judo power in the 1960s. Training at Meiji was what you might find in a judo dictionary as meaning “glutton for punishment”. But Bregman trained, learned, and was proud to become proficient enough to earn the respect of his Meiji comrades. “My sempai was the captain of the Meiji University team. And when he put his hand on my shoulder and called me a “waza-shi” (a technician), that meant more to me than a medal.”

Bregman remembers judo in Japan as being a meritocracy, where attitude, grace and technique were the measures of a person. He said that twice a year, there would be public and open competitions called “koh-haku shiai“, where any judoka could come and compete. They would line you up in terms of your level, from the beginners’ level of “sho-dan“, then to “ni-dan“, “san-dan“, and upwards. You could have a line of hundreds of judoka, and the process is the first person in line gets on the mat with the next judoka and has a go. Whoever wins, stays on the mat to take on the next guy, and the next guy. Sometimes, a person from a lower rank takes on a person from the next rank up and wins a match or two. But very often, judoka are in the right rank, getting that feedback real time in front of all to see.

Bregman told me that when he first started attending koh-haku shiai as a ni-dan, “you’re basically a flying machine” getting tossed all over the place. But as you train, you get better, and over time, you’re throwing people, and eventually beating people above you in rank. “It’s a real learning experience,” Bregman told me, “putting to test all the things you learned from your training.”

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From the autobiography of Syd Hoare, “A Slow Boat to Yokohama”

One of his most impactful teachers was Bregman’s sempai, a judoka named Seki who was a year ahead of Bregman. He said he trained every day with Seki, who was third or fourth best in the middleweight class in Japan, learning the right way to stand, mat work, choke techniques, and mat presence, lessons that served him well in the Olympics. Bregman explained that Seki would train Bregman about mat presence by practicing near the “joh-seki“, a wooden floor where shrines were placed for special occasions. Since the joh-seki was hard, falling on it was something Bregman wanted to avoid.

It was hard enough thrown on the tatami, which are not exactly cushions. Even though we know how to fall, it hurts. What he was teaching me is that you have to be conscious of where the edges are, to have total mat awareness. You need to know where your opponent is going, and where you want to go. Most of us were taught to fight in the middle of the mat. This was due to the early rules of judo. If you go to the mat, and you stepped out, they brought you back after stopping the match, so throwing a person outside the mat was, in a way, wasted effort. So Seki taught me how to anticipate the other person’s move and maneuver him to where you want to go.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Bregman faced off against a judoka from Argentina named Rodolfo Perez. In the video, you can see Bregman pick up Perez’s right leg, putting him off balance. But Bregman notices that he is just about to push Perez off the mat, which would have stopped the match and resulted in no points. Noting where he wanted to go, Bregman planted his right foot at the edge of the mat, and while still holding Perez’s leg suspended, he turned the two of them nearly 180 degrees so that Bregman was facing the middle of the mat. Then with his left leg sweeping from behind, he tripped up Perez in a kosotogake. Perez fell safely in bounds and Bregman moved on to the semi-finals.

 

Judoka James Bregman Part 2: The Stoic Professionalism of Judo

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Members of the US Olympic Judo Team in 1964: George Harris, James Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell

When it was announced in 1960 that judo would make its Olympic debut in 1964 in Tokyo, Ben Nighthorse Campbell knew he had to be there. He had to be there not only to compete in the Olympics, but also to train. Japan was the mecca for judo, a martial art developed by IOC’s first representative from Japan, legendary Jigoro Kano.

So after years of training in the United States in high school and college, as well as in the US Air Force in South Korea, Campbell resolved to go to Japan and train at the Japanese judo powerhouse, Meiji University. In the 1960s, there was no organized funding system to train and support American athletes in judo, so Campbell sold his car and his house, and even cashed in his life insurance policy to pay for his trip to Japan.

“I’m not sure what I was thinking,,,it’s really hard,” Campbell told me. “You can’t believe the difference (between training in the US and Japan). You have to live with a lot of bruises. I was training 5 hours a day, first at Keishicho (where the police trained) in the morning, and then at Meiji in the afternoon. If you broke your nose, you had to show up. If you broke something else, you had to stand at attention for hours until you healed.”

Campbell, who would go on to serve in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate from 1986 to 2005, representing the state of Colorado, said in his biography, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, “the training, in fact, was absolutely brutal. My nose was broken a couple of times, I lost two teeth, and I guess I broke or dislocated virtually every finger and toe I’ve got and suffered any number of bruises, contusions, and swollen ears.”

Training with the very best judoka in the world twice a day every day in Japan shaped Campbell into a champion, as he won US national titles from 1961 to 1963, and a gold medal in the open weight division at the Pan American Games in 1963. He also attended the Tokyo International Sports Week, which was held precisely one year prior to the actual start of the 1964 Olympics. This was a dress rehearsal for officials and planners, a way to test out preliminary operational plans, including the opening ceremonies. But it was also a legitimate sports competition for athletes who were invited.

Campbell was already in Japan for Tokyo International Sports Week, and pulled off what was considered an upset at the time. He defeated the captain of the Meiji University team, someone who was considered a strong candidate to make the Japan judo team. So when Campbell went to New York City for the Olympic trials, he was at the top of his game. He went on to win seven out of seven matches, five of them on falls, and won a spot on the US Judo Team.

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With only four months to go before the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell had to stay in shape and stay away from major injury. Unfortunately, he was not in Japan, where the competition was keen. Instead he trained against a large number of inexperienced judoka, which according to Campbell, can be unpredictable, and lead to awkward maneuvers that can lead to injury. As it turned out, Campbell had just such an experience, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With the Olympics around the corner, Campbell felt he had no choice but to grin and bear the pain.

In his first bout in the Budokan during the last days of the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell faced off against Thomas Ong of the Philippines. The match was over in seconds, as Campbell simply rushed Ong and swept his legs out from under him for an ip-pon. His second-round opponent was a far heavier opponent from Germany, Thomas Glahn. And in the midst of battle, Campbell’s knee gave way, and then so did any chance of winning a medal. Campbell forfeited and hobbled off the mat. “If my knee was OK, I could have beaten him,” Campbell told me.

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Campbell and Geesink, from the book Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior

Glahn would go on to earn a bronze medal, but could not do better as he lost to Japanese judoka, Akio Kaminaga. As it turns out, Kaminaga was the only Japanese not to win gold when he lost famously to the huge and hugely talented Dutch man, Anton Geesink.

And then the Olympic Games ended. It was time to say farewell. Campbell was hanging out with one of his friends from California, Don Schollander. Having won four gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, the swimming golden boy Schollander was pegged to carry out the American flag for the closing ceremonies. But according to Campbell, Schollander had to leave, literally during the closing ceremony. So somehow, during the march in the stadium, Schollander handed Campbell the flag for the rest of the march. Campbell’s knee was aching. Cold winds were whipping through the late October evening. And the flag and its pole, apparently, is not so light. But according to Campbell in his biography, it was a weight he would bear with pride, not just on that day, but throughout his days of service.

Campbell has never forgotten that moment. He remembered it clearly twenty-five years later when, as a member of Congress, he voted for the amendment to make desecrating the American flag a crime. “I got some heat from the liberals for that vote, but it made no difference to me. I told my colleagues on the House floor that I didn’t fight in Korea or carry our flag in the Olympics so some fool could burn it.”