Jiu-jitsu, the Olympics, and the Sport Trap

The Olympics are happening, which means there’s corruption, doping scandals . . . you know, the things that make the Games so great.  There’s also been quite a bit chatter about which sports should and should not be in the Games, especially since the IOC’s decision to drop Wrestling (though it was later reinstated for the 2020 games).  One sport that has received a lot of attention in terms of whether it should be in the Games is jiu-jitsu.

Seemingly, becoming an Olympic sport would be a good thing: more exposure, greatly popularity, etc.  However, getting into the Olympics is not necessarily the best thing for a sport, especially combat sports, for two reasons.  First, other combat sports have gotten into the Olympics, but this has usually required a change in the rules to make it safer for the participants, as well as more spectator friendly.  Second, where the Olympics are the pinnacle of a sport, those rules often dictates the direction of a sport.

Now, this is not to suggest that the Olympics will corrupt the art of jiu-jitsu–we are seeing that already.  But where there is already concern about the direction of jiu-jitsu, at its core, away from a self-defense system and towards the realm of sport, entry into the Olympics would at least entrench the current trend towards the latter.

Spend any amount of time around Jay, and you will quickly learn that his approach to jiu-jitsu is self-defense first, sport second.  This is not to suggest he dislikes the sport aspect of jiu-jitsu, or that it is not beneficial; just that at its base, the art should be about self-defense, with spider-guard and the like being secondary matters.

The problem is not with the sport aspect of combat arts, per se, but rather when the sport aspect becomes the driver of the direction of the art.  This usually happens when, in order to gain popularity, the powers that be try to steer an art into the realm of sport. Usually this requires that the safety of participants increase, and that the art become more spectator friendly.  As such, rules are set in place without regard for whether the art remains realistic (i.e., how many times have you witnessed a street fight go to the ground, only to thirty seconds later of inactivity have a third party bystander stand up the two fighters?)

Using Judo as the paradigm, Jay has written two articles that have highlighted how the move to become more popular via becoming a sport leads to the dilution of a combat art; what he calls “the sport trap”. First, his article “Mitsuyo Maeda – The Origin of BJJ

Competition. Kano pushed competition FOR THE SAKE OF DEVELOPMENT OF JUDO. But, eventually that whole end part got left off, and it was just a focus on competition. In the 20’s Japan was really pushing to have Judo accepted as an Olympic event. So….. They changed a bunch of rules, to make it quicker and more spectator friendly. And….. They “cleaned up” the training halls. Stopped the challenge fighting, and more roughneck stuff.

He gets into more detail about what has changed in his article “Falling in the Sport Trap“:

People screw it up.

They almost immediately develop pins that DO hold you down, BUT are so contrived that you couldn’t possibly strike from there. And now consideration of strikes is OUT of Judo.
Injuries start occurring, cause people put more emphasis on winning, than learning. And now….. Naturally, people want to know “who’s the best”. More rules. And time limits. And points.

And, now that it’s a sport, you have to consider the spectators. And then we get rules like stand ups, and restarts, and shorter matches, to match their attention span.

Hell, we instituted stand ups in MMA, just because Joe Public didn’t know what they were seeing, and may change channels. But that’s another topic.

The point is, the conversation that started this rant.

I was having a conversation with a Judo Black Belt. And, like a million other Black Belts I’ve had this conversation with, argued with me that Judo didn’t contain strikes, or leg locks. Of course, when you say “what about the opening move in the Nage No Kata? Isn’t that throw off a strike?”. “Well sure. But who does the Kata’s any more?”

Of course, this is not to say that the Olympics will push jiu-jitsu towards the realm of sport.  As Jay stated earlier this year on his podcast discussing how organization and rule-making impacts sports/arts, and jiu-jitsu has already moved towards the realm of sport:

It’s not going to get worse, it’s already the way it is . . . It’s not like they’re going to get into the Olympics and all of sudden this thing that was once free form and open is suddenly going to get organized.  It’s already organized

Similarly, as BJJ blackbelt Mark Mullen recently wrote an article for the Jiu-Jitsu Times on why schools don’t teach leg locks, the IBJJF has already had this impact on jiu-jitsu:

First, what is taught in many academies is largely dictated by the IBJJF rules for sports competition. With so many gyms focused heavily on competition, far more time is going to be spent training strategies that win medals.

Because many competitions have rules restricting or prohibiting leg locks, competitors are unlikely to win by attacking their opponents’ legs. It therefore makes more sense for gyms to train sweeps and attacks on the upper body.

BJJ isn’t the only art whose style has been heavily influenced by competition rules, either. Judo has discarded MANY valid grappling techniques such as leg grabs to try to achieve a certain aesthetic outcome in the competitions.

The simple fact of the matter is competitions often dictate the art, not vice versa.

However, while the IBJJF has a fair amount of influence over jiu-jitsu, it is just one entity that puts on tournaments (with the likes of ADCC, NAGA, Grappler’s Quest, and many others putting on their own events with their own rules), and the federation is not yet the pinnacle of the sport the same way the Olympics are for say, weightlifting.  But what’s the danger of having a single entity at the pinnacle of a sport?

In a 2015 interview with the Barbell Shrugged podcast, lifting coach John Broz talked about rules changes within the International Weightlifting Federation, and how the IWF:

[A]ltered things basically around the Olympic games . . . because that’s the pinnacle for them, so everything has to follow their protocol.

He also noted that the rules and regulations of the various lifting federations do not vary much, and typically, like the IWF, parallel the Olympics.  (A basic rationale for why this is the case is simple; when the Olympics are what your competitors are shooting for, why have them compete under a different set of rules?).

In other words, the danger is a centralized entity at the pinnacle of a sport setting rules that permeate from the top-down through most federations (IBJJF) and entities that put on tournaments (NAGA, Grappler’s Quest, etc.).  Again using Judo as the paradigm, this scenario has played out in combat sport.  From a 1991 LA Times article:

But for Japan, the rival is the giant International Judo Federation (IJF), whose 150 member-countries have taken over the role of guiding a sport invented in 1882 that was derived from Japan’s ancient martial arts.

And ever since judo entered the Olympics as an official sport in 1972, Japan’s clout in setting the standards has been diluted by the global democracy within the IJF.

In terms of jiu-jitsu, one could make the strong argument that the IBJJF would assume the position at the pinnacle of jiu-jitsu, with its rules permeating throughout the sport.  Other federations would adopt IBJJF rules and regulations, with the trend described above by Mark Mullen becoming more and more robust.