Judo writing

Judo Olympic Qualification Explained: The post-2008 IJF Olympic qualification system, IJF tournament format and its intended and unintended consequences

by Lincoln Han

Until the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, a judo player’s qualification for the Olympics is based mainly on two things:  the player’s country has earned one spot for his weight category in the continental ranking, and the player has to be selected by the national organization through various means. In the U. S. it was the Olympic Trial where the top eight ranked athletes from each weight category compete for the spot. If the winner of the tournament is not the currently number one athlete, then the winner will have a fight-off against the number one ranked, whoever wins two out of three matches will take the qualification. Other countries may or may not use a similar system. The U. S. did not always have the Olympic Trial prior to 2004, as in the past it had different criteria.

The continental ranking is based on the number of countries and some other criteria. For example, Pan-American Judo Union had six spots, European Judo Union nine, Asia five, etc. For a country to earn a spot for a weight category (14 in total, 7 for men and 7 for women), that country has to make sure some players have to earn enough points at the continental qualification tournaments or World Championships; only after a spot is earned in the weight category, that country can think about their internal individual selection.

Taking the U. S. for example, under the previous system, each player focuses on making the top six in the Pan American region or taking top six at the World Championships. Some of the continental qualifications for the Pan American region are:

  • World Championships (points given for up to 9th place)
  • Pan American Championships (points given for up to 7th place)
  • Pan American Games (points given for up to 7th place)
  • Regional Cups (Northern/Central/Southern) (points given for up to 5th place)

It is entirely possible that a player who earned the qualification of his weight category for his country does not go to the Olympic Games, because of the internal selection process. Since the U. S. had an Olympic Trial, the players just have to focus accumulate enough points to be ranked #1, and/or winning the Trial event. To accumulate national ranking points, one could attend a variety of events from domestic to international, from E-level to A-level. The travel expenses, while significant, is flexible as one could have a choice of the type and location of a point tournament. This is an important point, especially for countries whose athletes are not salaried professional, and I’ll get to this later.

The host nation is automatically given the right to have one player for weight category. Then, there are some unused spots which are given to some countries (example: Hong Kong, Guam, Zimbabwe, etc.) that did not qualified directly, at the discretion of the continental judo organization. Generally these are given to the countries without a strong judo program and result to promote diversity in the Olympic Games.
 
Here is an overview of the qualification system:

 

 

Men

 

Women

Weight Categories

Totals

1.

World Championships

6

+

6

12 x 7

=    84

2.

Unions:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Africa

3

+

2

5 x 7

=    35

 

Asia

5

+

3

8 x 7

=    56

 

Europe

9

+

5

14 x 7

=    98

 

Oceania

1

+

1

2 x 7

 =    14

 

Panamerica

6

+

3

9 x 7

=    63

 

Total Quota Unions

24

+

14

38 x 7

=  266

3.

Host Nation

1

+

1

2 x 7

=    14

4.

Tripartite Commission Invitation Places

Sex and categories of weight not

previously defined

 

=    15

5.

Final Qualification Places

Sex and  categories of weight not previously defined, places allocated after WC 2003

=      7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOTAL

 

 

 

 

=  386


Another important point to note is: all the competitions were held under double-elimination format, including the World Championships and Olympic Games. That means, if a player loses to another player who makes to the semi-final, the losing player gets another chance to fight back through “repechage” or recuperate matches. It can happen to even the best player who loses first round against another player. As long as the person to whom he lost makes to the semi-final, he could fight again until he loses again. This format gives a player more possibility to have more matches and reach the bronze medal final, but it takes longer to complete the tournament as there are more recuperate matches. Since judo is a highly unpredictable sport, especially at the high level where most players are similar in ability and skill, several variables could influence the outcome of a match and even a favored player could be eliminated early on. This is a fair way to make sure that a player who lost to a strong competitor gets another chance to prove himself.

After the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the International Judo Federation introduced a new Olympic qualification system. Under the new qualification system, each athlete will qualify for oneself and one’s nation based on a world ranking list (WRL). If a player is not on the list, that player will not be qualified to participate even if that player’s nation has qualified already. At the cut-off date before the Olympic Games, the top 22 unique nations will earn a spot for each weight category. If there is more than one athlete directly qualified, the nation will choose one. Like the previous qualification system, the host nation will get one spot for each category. Beyond that, 100 places will be given to the continental unions based on the WRL; and some “wild card” spots (20 invitations) will be given to certain countries.

2012-2016 Olympic Judo Qualification Chart
Source: IJF web site

The positive thing about the new qualification is that the athletes are responsible for their own qualification, and not as much subject to political favoring from their national organization compared to before. However, that also means if an athlete cannot compete for whatever reason, and the country does not have another directly qualified athlete for that weight category, no one else could go. The IJF also increased the number of Olympic qualification events around the world, such as the World Cup (now Continental Open), Super World Cup (now Grand Prix and Grand Slam) events. In addition to these IJF Olympic-qualification events, there are also the continental Olympic-qualification events such as continental championships. As a result, the athletes are able to choose from more events to suit their training plan.

On the down side, along with this, the IJF also made some significant changes to the format of their competitions. There is no more double-elimination like before; instead, it became a single-elimination format with quarterfinal repechage. For a brief period following the change, IJF actually had a single-elimination format with no repechage. That means the pool winners go to the semi-final, and the losers of the semi-finals will get bronze medals automatically, whereas before, they had to fight the winner of each repechage pool. Everyone else who lost to the semi-finalists (or others) was out of the competition, with no chance for repechage. Eventually, IJF realized the drastic change was not well accepted as judo is a highly random game and athletes don’t like spending $2000 to get one match with the odds heavily against them. So the IJF eventually settled on the quarter-final repechage format. That means, only those who lost during or after quarter-final have a chance to fight in recuperate matches. Compared to double elimination format, it is more restrictive and reduces the competition time. It also made it impossible for anyone lost to a semi-finalist before the quarter-final to have a chance to fight for a medal like before.

Why does it matter? It matter very much, because up until now, A-level (Olympic Qualification) events and the Olympic Games always had a double-elimination format. Many of the former bronze medal winners would not have been such if they had fought under the current tournament format. The irony is that many of the same people who are supportive of the format change belong to that category. Anyone is knowledgeable about international judo for knows that it is possible that even a great judo athlete could lose in the early rounds to another athlete. For example, one of the best of all times, triple Olympic champion, Japan’s Tadahiro Nomura, lost his first match at the 2009 World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, against a young Azeri, Vugar Shirinli, who went on to win the silver medal. Under the old rule, Nomura would have had another chance to fight the repechage because he lost to the semi-finalist. Yet under the new rule, he was out. If it could happen against such great judo athlete, it could happen to any other athlete.

Although it is true, statistically, the very best competitors have a higher win percentage of from >70% to >90%, most elite athletes have a 50% to 70% win average. For an athlete to climb the curve to become one of the best with a high win rate, that athlete has to start from somewhere in the lower percentile. No one starts at the top percentile. Especially for aspiring Olympian without much experience, the climb under the new system can be much steeper. Even for the reasoned elite athletes who average 50% to 70% win. It’s often a gamble at an IJF A-level tournament whether they will make far enough to the quarter-final. Since if they lose before the quarter-final, they cannot have a chance at the podium or even top seven places, any early loss compounds the difficulty of getting meaningful ranking points.

With this in mind, one can see when the randomness is introduced; most athletes who aspire to qualify for the Olympic Games have to participate in more tournaments in order to increase their chance of earning some ranking points. Besides increasing the probability to reach the quarter-final and beyond at a tournament, it also serves another important purpose, which is to gain valuable experience fighting different opponents. In order to improve a player performance at competition, especially if a player is from a country with a small judo community, and that means most countries in the world, more competitions (and training camps) are necessary to gain experience. This may not be essential when one comes from a strong judo country with many high-level athletes like Japan, France, Georgia, Russia, etc. but for most other countries, it is necessary.

That mean aspiring Olympians have to compete at more events to earn the ranking points. Why do ranking points matter? The ranking points help the seeding process when a contest pool sheet is created at each event. The top eight ranked competitors at each event is spread out so they don’t fight each other in the early rounds, to reduce the chance of eliminating a high ranked player by his similarly competitive opponent. The top athletes all understand the importance of seeding as it increase their chance of getting to the quarter-final and beyond. But to get the ranking points, they need to do well at tournaments and go to more tournaments. Going to tournaments is expense, but getting more matches at a tournament is a much better value for the experience to money and point to money ratio.

So what if an athlete has to travel more often and compete more often? First it may cause interruption in the athlete’s training cycle as one has to be constantly traveling and competing, which leaves little time for proper recovery and program progression. Second, it overwhelmingly favors athletes from geographical area where there is a high concentration of judo players and the countries are closer to each other – such as Europe. This point is easily illustrated: some of the biggest A-level tournaments in Europe are found in the U. K., Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Estonia, Portugal, Austria, all within the reach of a three-hour flight. Instead, for someone based in the U. S., to attend A-level events in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, one needs to take a minimum of eight hours of flight. For athletes from Oceania, it is even worse, they have the fewest A-level events, and their travel to anywhere else is very long and costly.

That brings to the third point – the expenses. Traveling for competition is not cheap and the cost can add up quickly over a year. It may not be a big concern if the national federation is paying for its athletes, but in most countries where judo is not a profession, such as the U. S., it becomes a serious burden. Take the U. S. as an example, where as in the past people had to worry about just traveling for the continental Olympic qualification events and keep their national ranking through a serious of domestic and international tournaments, now they have to travel exclusively internationally to achieve the same effect. On average, to attend an international A-level tournament cost about $2500 ($1200 for the flight, $600 to $800 for four nights of hotel, $100 registration fee, $300 to $400 for meals and various expenses). Adding training camps, each trip grow by another $500 to a $1000. Over a year, the expense can easily add to over $30000. Most non-salaried athletes (the case of the U. S. and most countries) do not earn much if any money from judo, and this increased expense is an equally increased financial burden.

The IJF also mandates that all competitors have to stay at the official tournament 4- or 5-star hotels, which is often much more expensive than what most athletes would book on their own had they a choice. At the 2011 World Championships in Paris, the room rate for the official hotel near the Bercy stadium was over $400 a night! At the Rome World Cup in Rome, the room rate was over $200 a night. Often you can find the same quality hotel for at least 30% less expensive, and much less for a 2- to 3-star hotel. In Paris at the same time, it was possible to book a decent 2- to 3-star hotel for less than one-third the rate of the official hotel. In Rome, you could find a decent 3-star hotel in Ostia, few kilometers from the competition venue for less than $100 a night. But if you do that, the IJF will assess a penalty of 100 euros per athlete, essentially negating most saving and discourage the stay at an unofficial hotel.

This all happened under the leadership of the current IJF President Marius Vizer. The IJF is really trying to become a commercial organization and make judo like professional boxing or tennis, except they don’t realize that at the common level, and the spectator level, judo is not well-funded sport like tennis or boxing where the sponsors are many and financially powerful. In addition to the new qualification system, some minor changes include the new back patch rule (2010) requiring all athletes to wear official IJF-approved patch from a single source at A-level events. The back number rule eventually trickled to continental B-level events.

Another requirement was making athletes wear only sanctioned uniforms sold by IJF-approved vendors, which the IJF receives a royalty for every gi bearing its approval sold. This was initially limited to A-level events, but like the back patch, trickled to continental B-level events and even to some national events (such as the U. S.). On one hand, it is a good thing that competitors have a uniform standard to deter unfair advantage from using judogis designed to minimize opponent’s ability to keep a grip, and the back patch helps to clearly identify all competitors. On the other hand, while these things may be minor expenses in the grand scheme of things, still, to most full-time athletes who don’t have a steady income, the extra $500 spend on getting two new quality IJF-approved judogis, another $50 for the patches are just additional expenses they have the bear.

Perhaps the current IJF administration is staffed with people who come from countries where the elite sport system used to be state-run (like Romania, Russia, and all the ex-Soviet Republics); or where the federation and state provide meaningful financial support of their professional athletes (Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, Georgia, etc.). Regardless of their motivation, the current qualification system overwhelming favors countries with highly organized and well funded system for judo. Take Italy for example, they have a professional judo system where the military sport groups (including police) pay their athletes a salary. These judo players are full-time athletes who just train and compete, even if they are technical police or military, they don’t perform any actual duties related to their employer besides judo. When the national team is sent to certain tournament, officially selected athletes are paid for the entire trip. Those who are not officially selected and choose to go, they go at their expenses. In Russia, they have over $4 million budget for judo during one Olympic cycle. In comparison, the USA Judo doesn’t even get one-tenth of that for its athletes for the same period.

Where is this taking the judo world? With an increase in expense without an increase in funding all across the board for judo players, judo is becoming like a professional sport at the expense level without the financial and sport infrastructure. While countries without a professional system such as the U. S. will produce few exceptional athletes every now and then, international judo will become more dominated by countries with a professional support system for their athletes. For aspiring Olympians who don’t have such environment, the hurdles just became much higher. Is this the Olympic ideal?

 

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