Geesink vs Kaminaga_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_The Kyodo News Service
Anton Geesink staving off fans at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”.

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.

james-bregman_1964-tokyo-olympics_2
Bregman (#5) throwing an opponent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from James Bregman’s personal collection.

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.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

Dong Kih Choh 1
Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..