French Audrey Tcheumeo reacts after defeating Japan Ruika Sato during the -70 kgs final, on February 12, 2017 at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, during the Judo Grand Slam Paris 2017.   / AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK        (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)
Why France is a heartland of judo
02:38 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Judo practiced by 600,000 people in France

Only Japan has won more Olympic & World medals

FJF has acquired the Grand Dome of Villebon-sur-Yvette

CNN  — 

If judo remains something of a niche sport in most countries, the same can’t be said in France.

As many as 600,000 people nationwide regularly practice the discipline known as “the gentle way,” traveling in their droves each year to the Paris Grand Slam where the sport is celebrated and champions are made.

Success breeds success. To date, French judoka have won 147 World Championship medals and 48 golds.

Only Japan, where the sport was created, can boast a better Olympic haul.

French Judo Federation President Jean-Luc Rouge was the country’s first ever world champion, triumphing in the -93kg weight category back in 1975.

“In France, judo is more than a sport. It’s a part of life,” Rouge tells CNN.

“We have 5,700 clubs in our country and we are present in all of the villages and towns. We are everywhere.”

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“A mainstream sport”

It hasn’t always been so.

When Rouge first took the tatami in 1963, there were just 30,000 practitioners in all of France and judo was regarded as an unknown, “mythic” discipline.

“It was something strange for the French population because it was coming from Japan and difficult to understand,” he says.

Now it is regarded as the fourth most popular sport in France, behind only football, tennis and equestrianism.

What is behind such an meteoric rise?

“It has not developed like a sport, but like an education system,” says Rouge.

“The French Judo Federation has always been sure to have professional teachers; because of that, we are in good confidence of the parents.”

Almost 10% of eight-year-olds nationwide are members of the French Judo Federation – a higher percentage than any other sport in France at that age, according to Rouge.

“I think we are the best for this age,” says the FJF President. “It is a mainstream sport.”

Czech Republic's Lukas Krpalek celebrates after winning the gold medal against Cuba's Jose Armenteros during the -100 kg category competition at the World Judo Championships on in Chelyabinsk,on August 30, 2014. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rouge doesn’t single out a particular moment or “turning point” that led judo to become so popular – instead ascribing it to the prevailing values of the sport.

“The life of a champion is more important than his results,” says the 68-year-old.

“Teddy Riner is 10-time world champion. Maybe it will be 12, or 14. That is not the most important thing: Teddy Riner is an image of the people.”

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But for all this, funding has dropped and development has become “more difficult.”

Rouge has had to innovate and find other ways to grow.

“We are in economic problems in France and all the world,” he explains. “Before, French children would do two, three or four sports. Now it is maybe one or two maximum.

And so the Federation has purchased the Grand Dome of Villebon-sur-Yvette on the outskirts of Paris.

The plan is to turn it into a state of the art multi-sports facility – all to generate new revenue streams in a time when government funding has been cut.

“We need money, and for that we must be independent,” says Rouge. “To be independent, we must have a business model.

“Our business model is this. We’ll develop events for judo, of course, but also for other sports.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA:  David Douillet of France celebrates his gold medal victory in the Olympic men's heavyweight over 100kg final against Shinichi Shinohara of Japan, 22 September 2000 at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Douillet, who won the bronze medal in the 1992 Barcelona Games and the gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games was also the World heavyweight champion in 1993, '95 and '96. AFP PHOTO/KIM Jae-Hwan (Photo credit should read KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Le Grand Dome seats 6,400 and has enough space for 16 mats.

Beams of sunlight shine in through broken beams, but the potential is there for all to see.

And indeed it’s not only the CNN cameras being given a sneak peek of the dome during our time in Paris.

Rouge is also showing off the expansive space to the French basketball federation (FBF), to see if they’d like to rent it for events.

“This is interesting, especially for judo but also other sports,” says FBF President Jean-Pierre Siutat.

“We need space and I think you could put a lot of courts here, maybe stage a tournament.

“I’m very impressed by the situation. I know the whole project and it is is very nice. Judo has done a good job here and for the future.”

“Their ideas regarding how they’ve managed their federation could be an example for us.”

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There remains a lot of work to be done if the FJF is to fulfill its immediate ambition of opening the new venue for a competition on March 15.

But, with Rouge at the helm, French judo has its sights set firmly on the future.