Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ready To Rumble America and Russia may dominate outside the ring - butAsia still rules when it comes to fighting.(martial arts events inOlympic Games 2004).

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The gentle way, originally uploaded by De Goedegebuurtjes™. USA, LLC

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Judo means "The Gentle Way" in Japanese, but there's nothing gentle about Kosei Inoue as he grapples with a teammate at an Olympic training camp near Nagano in Japan. The stuffy gymnasium reverberates with the drum roll of bodies slamming off the mats as Inoue, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, grips his sparring partner, a baby-faced giant considerably larger than the 100-kg Inoue. The pair crashes together, then ricochets in a flailing knot off the mats and out of bounds, nearly crushing a TIME reporter with a total of more than 200 kg of judo fury. "It's pretty dangerous," warns a nearby coach. "You'd better be careful." And this is just practice. Gentle, indeed.

Asians have long monopolized the indigenous martial-arts events that feature in the Olympics--judo and Taekwondo--and the region's athletes routinely pop up on the medal podium for grinding full-contact disciplines like boxing and wrestling. In Athens, Asians will be competitive in more sports than ever before, but their best hopes for glory still lie in those that require creative methods of inflicting physical punishment.

Judo events are once again expected to be dominated by Japan, which introduced the world to the sport at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Inoue, who is the captain of Japan's Olympic team, and Ryoko Tani--a ruthless martial-arts master who wears pink hair-ties--will lead the way. Meanwhile, South Korea is favored to excel in Taekwondo, although Taiwan and the rest of the world have been gaining ground since the sport debuted as a medal event in 2000. Olympic boxing can always count on a contingent of tiny tough guys from Thailand; 2003 world champ Somjit Jongjohor is looking to strike gold. And in one of the newest Olympic sports, women's wrestling, Japan can expect up to four gold medals, thanks in part to Kyoko Hamaguchi, a champion heavyweight grappler who is following in the footsteps of her pro wrestler father.


When she was a teenage schoolgirl with an 84-match unbeaten streak, judo master Ryoko Tani was known as Ryoko Tamura; she changed her name last December when she married Japanese pro baseball player and fellow Olympian Yoshimoto Tani in a $3 million Paris wedding that was televised across Japan. Tani's popularity in her home country is as outsized as she is pint-sized, but that only makes the gold-medal pressure on the 1.46-m judoka all the more intense. She was upset in the 1992 and 1996 Games, having to settle for silver on each occasion. At Sydney in 2000, she told reporters she wanted "at best, a gold. At worst, a gold." It was the best of times and the worst of times for Tani then, as she finally broke her gold-medal jinx, fighting her way to Olympic glory.

Since then, Tani has marched to a record sixth straight world championship, and at age 28, remains the preeminent female judoka of her era. A heel injury suffered just a month before the Olympics will make her quest for another gold the most difficult of her career, but Tani's competitiveness has trumped physical pain repeatedly in the past. "She is a born fighter," says Yasuhiro Muto, a judo writer for the Tokyo Chunichi Sports newspaper. "She is a contestant who hates losing. She changes color when it comes to a match."

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is the low-key Inoue, a perfectionist whose pre-tournament ritual consists of cleaning his room until it is as spotless as his fighting record. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies have served him well. His college coach, Hidetoshi Nakanishi, remembers seeing Inoue for the first time as an 11-year-old, practicing each day until his coaches would force him to stop. Even then, Nakanishi says, "I knew he was someone to be looking forward to." Nonetheless, Inoue's gold-medal-winning performance at Sydney was a shock. To earn first place, judokas have to win five straight matches in a single day, which can take up to 25 minutes of fighting. Inoue won all of his matches by ippon (knockout) in a total of six minutes. "It is his ippon which captivates," says Nakanishi.

Still, Inoue professes to care less about medals than what he calls "ultimate judo." "I believe from now on I have to do judo as only Kosei Inoue can," he says. "I am thinking of doing my own judo, to create a new one." And when he finally achieves that? "The moment I do will be the time for retirement."


Japan will always have some of the best judo masters in the world, but their pre-eminence pales when compared with South Korea's supremacy in Taekwondo. Even though the sport has eight weight classes in the Olympics, each qualifying country is allowed to send only four athletes at most, presumably so Koreans can't monopolize the medal stands. For most South Korean Taekwondo fighters, then, the real challenge isn't just earning the gold: it's defeating fellow countrymen to qualify for the Olympics in the first place. Four years ago, for example, heavyweight Moon Dae Sung missed the Olympics after losing a last-minute rematch during national selections. He made the team this time around, and in Athens he'll be looking to use one of the strongest left kicks on earth to overpower opponents.

But with the rest of the world increasingly embracing the sport, Korea's Taekwondo fighters can no longer afford to be complacent. China's Wei Luo, who swept to a convincing gold in the 2003 world championships, looks likely to beat South Korean Hwang Hy Sun in the 67-kg women's event, while Taiwan's Chu Mu Yen and Chen Chih Hsin are both strong gold-medal contenders. "In the case of Europeans and some Asian athletes, there is no skill difference compared with us," South Korean Taekwondo coach Kim Sae Hyeock told the JoongAng Daily. "It's just a matter of who trains better and more."


Featherweight boxer Somluck Khamsing became a national hero after winning Thailand's first-ever gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. As a reward, his adoring country even paid him a $1.6 million bonus. But Somluck's mercurial training habits caught up with him, and he was easily defeated in the Sydney quarterfinals. The former champ has made ends meet in recent years by hosting a TV game show, opening a BBQ restaurant and recording a hit album with two fellow fighters called Three Boxers Become Singers. Now, however, the 31-year-old is making his comeback after two years out of the ring.

Though few pugilistic pundits give Somluck a realistic chance in Athens (he was almost bounced from the team recently for missing training sessions), his teammate Somjit Jongjohor could well become Thailand's third-ever gold medalist. Somjit, the 2003 world amateur flyweight champion, is a slick boxer with a talent for weaving out of trouble and counterpunching his way to victory. But even if he stumbles in Athens, Somjit has a backup career--like Somluck, he's recorded his own album.


The women who take to the mat in Athens won't just be battling for gold, silver and bronze--they'll be fighting for respect. That's a struggle Japan's top female wrestler, Kyoko Hama-guchi, understands well. As the daughter of popular 1970s pro wrestler Heigo (Animal) Hamaguchi, who today helps coach her, Kyoko Hamaguchi was expected to be a champion on bloodline alone. Her father never tried to make things easy on her. "I have been coaching my daughter since she was 13 and made her cry many times," he says. Determined to live up to his heady expectations, she worked harder than anyone. "The volume of her training is enormous," says sportswriter Toshiya Miyazaki, who has authored a book on the younger Hamaguchi's career. "If other wrestlers do something three times, she will do it five times." That drive has helped earn her five world championships, the first at age 19.

One indication of how popular Hamaguchi has become in Japan is that she has been given the honor of carrying the country's flag at the opening ceremony in Athens. Though other Jap-anese wrestlers Saori Yoshida (who has never lost an international competition) and sisters Chiharu and Kaori Icho are all expected to bring home gold, most Japanese eyes will remain on Hamaguchi. Her main rival will be American heavyweight Toccara Montgomery, who handed Hamaguchi a rare defeat in their last meeting. Hamaguchi claims to be keeping things in perspective. "I am the strongest I have ever been in my wrestling life, just in time for the Athens Olympics," she says. "But whether I win or lose, I am still the same person." True enough--but her opponents in Athens are likely to find her in a decidedly less philosophical mood. --With Reporting By Robert Horn/Bangkok, Kim Yooseung/Seoul And Michiko Toyama/Tokyo

Source Citation
"Ready To Rumble America and Russia may dominate outside the ring - but Asia still rules when it comes to fighting." Time International [Spanish Edition] 16 de agosto 2004: 48. Informe. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.
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