Sport meets philosophy - what judo can teach us about life
10:49 AM EDT, Fri July 20, 2018
Tal Flicker, Israel —
A gold medalist at the 2017 European Open, Flicker first got into judo when his father took him to a martial arts center. "I think the most obvious value people can take from judo and apply to their lives is respect," the former world No. 1 told CNN during the 2018 Paris Grand Slam. "Before a fight, you give a bow to your opponent. Then you fight like you want to eat each other, but at the end of the fight you shake hands and bow again. Other sports could learn from that."
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Kosei Inoue, Japan —
In Japan, where judo is more than just a sport, Inoue is no ordinary athlete. Essentially unbeatable between 1999 and 2003, the half-heavyweight judoka won three world titles and Olympic gold, placing him among the greatest of all time. "There is the competition, but there is something far bigger behind this," Inoue, now head coach of Japan, told CNN. "By practicing judo every day, it really helps you win in life in general. In judo, you always get thrown and you always have to stand up. It's very similar to life itself."
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Teddy Riner, France —
To face Riner in a competitive environment is to try and move a mountain. Standing over two meters tall, weighing in at around 300 pounds, the Frenchman possesses an aura of invincibility few can match in the history of sport. The numbers speak for themselves. Riner has reigned supreme for approaching a decade, winning over 130 consecutive matches on his way to securing a record 10 world titles. Riner's mantra is "aggressive on the mat, a gentleman off it." As the 29-year-old tells CNN: "When you go on the tatami, this is the fight; when you exit off the tatami you are back to being a gentleman."
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Majlinda Kelmendi, Kosovo —
When Kelmendi fights, an entire nation stands still. The 26-year-old is more than just a talented judoka -- she's Kosovo's biggest sporting icon. Her face adorns billboards all over her home city of Peja, where locals speak in hushed tones about their country's first ever Olympic champion. Her legacy is equally unmistakable, with a new generation of Kosovar stars emerging in her wake. "Through judo I became somebody," Kelmendi told CNN ahead of Rio 2016. "I don't do it because of money, I don't do it because I wanted to get famous. I do judo because I feel it, I love it -- it makes me feel good, makes me feel special."
Lukas Krpalek, Czech Republic —
Tens of thousands flocked to Lipno Lake to welcome the Czech Republic's Olympic heroes in the aftermath of Rio 2016 -- among which stood their country's first ever judo gold medalist, Krpalek. "Judo is something completely different to any other sport," the heavyweight world and Olympic champion told CNN in Prague. "Judo educates children from a young age to respect the elders, to respect the opponent, to somehow respect humanity itself. This is something I like a lot and I am glad this is observed, be it locally or at worldwide tournaments."
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Kayla Harrison, US —
Harrison is a two-time Olympic champion who, at London 2012, became the sport's first American Olympic gold medalist. Four years later, in Rio, she retained her title. "Judo saved my life," Harrison wrote in an exclusive CNN Sport column. "The sport gave me a goal, gave me something to wake up for. If I didn't have that when I was a teenager, I might not even be here."
Yasuhiro Yamashita, Japan —
"Today, in this fragile world, Judo gives us hope to overcome the obstacles of political tension, animosity and discrimination," heavyweight legend Yamashita, who retired unbeaten in 203 consecutive bouts, told CNN. "By practicing Judo, people learn the core values of respect and above all, on the tatami there is no border nor religion. Judo is a bridge that connects the world's people, cultures and countries."
Ryoko Tani, Japan —
She may stand at only 1.46 meters tall, but Japan's Ryoko Tani is widely considered to be the best female judoka of all time. Bursting onto the international scene aged 15, the Japanese star went on to dominate the extra-lightweight category (-48kg) for two decades. Tani is the first female judoka in history to compete at five Olympic games and the only one to walk away with a medal on every occasion. She went a remarkable 12 years unbeaten at international level, winning every major competition she entered from the end of 1996 to 2008. "Through judo I traveled to many cities and countries, and I've seen the power of sport," Tani told CNN. "I have realized that sport is a backbone in the structure of governments around the world."
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Uta Abe, Japan —
Siblings Hifumi and Uta Abe have lost just once since 2016 and look destined to become the stars of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Already a dominant force in the the U52kg division, it is easy to forget that Uta, at 17, is still a high school student. "Judo is hard; however, it's all worth it when you throw your opponent and win," she told CNN Sport, calling the discipline "unique in the way it brings people together."
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Jean-Luc Rouge —
With victory in the -93kg division back in 1975, Rouge became the first ever judo world champion from France. "The life of a champion is more important than his results," Rouge, now president of the French Judo Federation, told CNN. "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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Popole Misenga, ROT —
Having grown up amid the five-year civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Misenga sought asylum — without a passport, money or food — in Brazil after the 2013 World Championships in Rio. Three years later, he competed at the Olympics in the same city. "My life really changed after the Olympics," Misenga, a member of the Rio 2016 Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), told CNN. "I have a good life now. I don't need to worry every day if I can feed my family."
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Toni Geiger, US —
A Team USA athlete at the 2010 and 2011 World Championships, Geiger is using the life lessons and "moral code" judo taught her to educate a younger generation. "More children are leaving sport than ever before," she told CNN. "Our mission is to inspire as many children as humanly possible to believe in themselves through sport and physical activity."
Elliot Stewart, Great Britain —
Three years ago the eyesight of one of Britain's top judo talents was "perfect." Then he discovered he'd developed a rare condition called Keratoconus, which affects the cornea of the eye, impairing the ability to focus properly. His symptoms were mild at first but got progressively worse. "Judo means everything to me. It has brought me back from somewhere where I had nowhere to turn," says Stewart, who now wants to compete in the visually impaired -90kg weight category at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Arthur Margelidon, Canada —
A national champion in all age categories, Margelidon proved his credentials on the international stage with a silver medal at the 2017 Tokyo Grand Slam. "I started judo at the age of six. It was a way to express all the energy I had when I was a kid," the lightweight judoka told CNN. "They teach you about respect and fair play. It's really a moral sport, not only a sport to win medals. I would tell people that it's a good thing to try."
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Alexander Turner, US —
Another lightweight judoka, Turner (R), got involved in the sport through an after-school program because his mother thought it would keep him out of trouble. "It's given me discipline and a chance to travel the world," the American, a bronze medalist in the 2017 Cancun Grand Prix told CNN. "If your life is going down the wrong path, judo is definitely something you should give a try. It's the best way to channel your energy and find yourself."