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Mat 0: The Story of How the Olympics Passed Jiu-Jitsu By

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From July to August of 2012, one question permeated the mixed martial arts community nearly above all others: should and if so, when will MMA become an Olympic sport? The logic goes something like this. Several sports that are already in the Olympics - wrestling, judo, boxing, taekwondo - make up a huge portion of MMA. Besides, UFC President Dana White has openly advocated the idea of reforming MMA's deeply broken and exploitative amateur system by turning it into an organized process into the professional ranks.

The truth, however, is that MMA isn't ready to be in the Olympics. It doesn't meet very much of the criteria to be a recognized as an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The group the UFC has aligned itself with - the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) - isn't recognized as a legitimate International Federation by the IOC or SportsAccord. There's also no real blueprint for what form or adaptation the sport would take to make it palatable to the IOC. The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) has a growing amateur MMA division, but their distance from the MMA community is, to put it mildly, rather significant.

Even if MMA becomes part of the Olympics it certainly won't be anytime soon.

That lead some members of the MMA community to ask a different question. If MMA is off the table for the foreseeable future, what about jiu-jitsu? After all, from the outside the sport appears to be far more ready. It has a significantly higher participatory rate globally than MMA and can boast strong rosters from white belt to elite black belt of both genders. The sport also has (seemingly, anyway) multiple governing bodies, the architecture of regulation, organizational hierarchy and various other features the IOC requires for Olympic inclusion.

Yet, dig just below the surface and you'll discover a significantly different reality. Whereas the window is still open for MMA in the Olympics, jiu-jitsu arguably already missed its chance. Many of the sport's leaders, once interested in working with FILA to make the Olympic reality happen, walked away years ago before the effort ever really got started. The community is also generally opposed to any FILA involvement despite recognizing those who run and organize the sport's biggest tournaments aren't doing enough to make competition fair or properly regulated.

Despite the grand commercial success jiu-jitsu has enjoyed in North America and worldwide over the last 30 years, the sport will likely never achieve the recognition and legitimacy Olympic underwriting provides. The simplest explanation is that despite public statements by promoters, noteworthy black belts or even new grapplers that the sport deserves Olympic sanctioning, none of them really want it.

Here's why.


A Brief Moment in Time

Things weren't always so gloomy. There was a moment when FILA and several luminaries and leaders of the jiu-jitsu community wanted to work together to make Olympic inclusion happen.

The story goes like this. Interested in some form of jiu-jitsu or no-gi grappling becoming a part of the Olympics, members of FILA partnered in 2007 with representatives of Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) to form an exploratory committee to determine if there was a way to make the project happen.

According to Jason Townsend - FILA World Pankration, Grappling and Mixed Martial Arts Committee member and attendee at those meetings - things never got going in the right direction. FILA's representatives, while not issuing ultimatums, articulated their view that Olympic sanctioning only happened through them. After all, FILA is the major international governing body regulating nearly all major forms of wrestling including freestyle and folkstyle and oversees national governing bodies like USA Wrestling. FILA operates with authority vested in it from the IOC and SportsAccord.

ADCC's representatives, while initially interested in working with FILA, bristled at the idea and ultimately and publicly cut off ties with FILA. "We had several meetings and discussions but ideologically we were far apart and could not reach an agreement, especially when it came to rules and the direction of the sport. As a result of this Highness Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Guy Neivens and Renzo Gracie have all resigned from positions with the FILA World Grappling Committee," said then-ADCC Spokesman Guy Neivens. "We have a strong organization with several Federations in Europe and expanding quickly in other parts of the World as well. We wish FILA the best, but at this time we are going our own way!"

"You completely lose control," Renzo Gracie says. "You have to pass all control to them. You're investing and making a sport grow and the next thing you see, the guys are the owner of the sport. Basically we'd be under Olympic tournament. It'd be difficult."

Townsend admits the strong personalities of both FILA and ADCC was like "trying to mix oil and water". That ultimately torpedoed the effort. Still, he maintains, nothing's changed since those meetings. FILA is the only way through the Olympic door. Organizations like ADCC "[don't] really have any legitimate amateur protocol in place, structures and those types of things. I believe they're trying, but they're still looking at it from a business perspective and not an amateur sports perspective."

Gracie isn't just apprehensive about handing over control of the sport, but also how the sport of jiu-jitsu itself could be changed in the process. He says the story of judo is a cautionary tale in how Olympic inclusion can transform the very nature of the sport.

"The fact is, by judo being an Olympic sport, it stops being a business and becomes like a school, a training field in order to build Olympians," he says. "It becomes hard for Olympians to generate money. Even someone who gets the gold medal, it's a hard time to generate money out of that."

Rather than catering to the general population, Gracie says making jiu-jitsu an Olympic sport would force it to cater almost solely to its elite athletes.

"We have a part of the jiu-jitsu community who wants to see [the sport in the Olympics] and actually the majority don't want it. Because they believe we'd be treated like judo and in the end, a lot of people would lose their way of making a living like wrestling in the United States."


Brazilian Hegemony

In 1964, judo finally made its way to the Olympics. The games were held in Tokyo and this was Japan's re-arrival on the world stage since the ostracism of World War II. They did have athletes who could compete across a variety of the sports in those days, but wanted judo included because, so the thinking went, there's no way they'd get anything but gold medals in a sport that was their creation and dominated by them. This was their best chance to shine.

And they were right except, well, they weren't.

There were four weight divisions in judo's first Olympic run. Japan won gold in the first three: 68kg, 80kg, +80kg. The last division, Open Weight, is where things went wrong. A Dutch giant named Anton Geesink, standing 6-foot6 and weighing 270 pounds, threw a wrench into their plans winning gold against Japan's Akio Kamanaga. The Japanese were stunned.

It's true Geesink had won the 1961 World Judo Championships where he also beat a Japanese judoka. It's also believed the reason the 1964 games included multiple weight-classes is because the Japanese couldn't bear the idea of losing the gold medal if there were one weight class because of what Geesink had done in 1961. But they simply couldn't accept the idea a non-Japanese judoka could ultimately win the Olympics.

It was a revelatory moment for the world. Sure, the Japanese had the best judo, but they weren't the best. They could be beat and Europe was already trying to change and modernize the sport. Because of Anton Geesink, the world knew the days of Japanese hegemony were over.

This, critics charge, is why some of jiu-jitsu's leaders (many of which are Brazilian) are reluctant to push the sport towards the Olympics.

"I think that's a natural response from a Brazilian who owns a Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio who makes a lot of money off that side of it," Townsend says with respect to Gracie's apprehension. But, Townsend maintains, while Olympic inclusion "might put a little dent in the Brazilian business plan" ultimately the fear is unfounded. Schools would still be able to be schools and cater to every level of development and customer. "When you take a sport to an amateur level like the Olympics, you're not always gearing toward the elite athlete," says Townsend.

The real reason jiu-jitsu's established leaders don't want FILA to be involved, Townsend claims, is fear of Brazil losing its place as the dominant force in the sport.

Jimmy Pedro - judo World Champion, Olympic bronze medalist and coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic judo team - agrees there are historical parallels between judo in 1964 and jiu-jitsu in 2012.

"Yeah, I do," says Pedro when asked if he believes the Brazilians in the jiu-jitsu community don't want to risk losing control. "There are many solid judo players in the world right now that if they focused on jiu-jitsu would quickly make a transition into jiu-jitsu and do very well. It would take them a few years to perfect the techniques and learn the rules of jiu-jitsu, but they would fare very well at events because we do a lot of the techniques of jiu-jitsu already."

"Brazil would not have the stronghold on jiu-jitsu any longer."

"It's fear," Townsend contends. "It's fear that they're going to lose control of something the Brazilians have a tight grip on. And they're going to give up control to Europeans, they're going to give control to American wrestlers, they're going to give up control to Russians, the people who are going to get involved on the international level and they're no longer going to be able to control all the different schools, all the different associations in a way that they used to be able to control it. The governance will go to Switzerland."


FILA vs. Jiu-Jitsu

Part of FILA's troubles to move jiu-jitsu onto an Olympic track can be seen in the clash with ADCC in 2007: they were outsiders looking in and doing so with a sense of establishment if not entitlement. If jiu-jitsu was going to be in the Olympics, It was with FILA or it wasn't happening. Despite having more honest intentions, that approach - real or perceived - has resulted in a distancing with the jiu-jitsu community.

In other words, it isn't just jiu-jitsu leaders who are apprehensive about FILA, but the rank and file in the grappling community, too.

In 2007, USA Wrestling (under FILA's authority), began running grappling tournaments in North America. It was part of a larger effort to determine an international champion. While world teams were created and medals awarded out, the jiu-jitsu community viewed FILA's tournaments with unease or at a distance. There has been some participation from more elite grapplers within the jiu-jitsu community, but ultimately ADCC and IBJJF's tournaments never lost their luster. FILA still holds tournaments and grappling competitions, but there's an ever-revolving question about what they really signify or if they're worth a competitor's time.

"The rules are very different from IBJJF competitions," says ADCC bronze medalist and jiu-jitsu black belt Ryan Hall, "with an emphasis on wrestling, disallowed twisting footlocks, and interesting scoring. When FILA was first attempting to break into the market so to speak, I was a purple belt and remember that the general reaction in the BJJ community was not terribly positive. It may end up being the future of the sport, but it will take decades of work to make anything real of it. Also, the people leading the charge are the wrong guys: nobodies in the BJJ community or people with sketchy reputations who seem to be mostly in it for the publicity."

"IBJJF tournaments are significantly more popular, better attended, and massively deeper in terms of talent pool and competition level than any FILA grappling tournament I am aware of," Hall argues.

Townsend admits FILA never ingratiated itself with the jiu-jitsu community to get the participation or recognition he believes they still merit. "There was a misconception FILA was out to take over everyone. They're a sanctioning body just like USA Wrestling is. We're not really an events organization. They're not a promotion. They're an amateur governing body. In the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world, I don't think there's any real understanding of what that is or what that means."

Townsend also rejects the idea there's anything wrong with FILA's brand of scoring. "FILA rules are a mix of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and I would say maybe even some judo and sambo. You have to have a really good points scoring system in any Olympic sport and the point systems in the American promotions are totally insufficient. The rules are written totally insufficient. They would never stand up to an actual Olympic sports rules committee."

And this is where a noteworthy wrinkle enters the story. In terms of pure Brazilian jiu-jitsu with the gi, the sport is nowhere close to Olympic sanctioning. There is not a shred of performance enhancing drug testing and it's not clear the larger associations want it. IBJJF didn't return comment about their Olympic efforts, such that they exist, for this article.

But where Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the gi falls short, no-gi grappling is much further along. It has many of the participatory qualifications necessary for credentialing, almost 70 federations globally governing the sport and under FILA's watch, WADA-code enforced drug testing. The issue is what one calls it, which determines what it is: is it no-gi grappling, no-gi jiu-jitsu or something else altogether?

FILA's belief is that jiu-jitsu even with the gi is ultimately a traditional martial art. Submission grappling, however, has roots in multiple other sports, therefore, if there's going to be a no-gi common denominator the rule set has to reflect the comprehensive grappling sport. For FILA, no-gi grappling isn't shorthand for no-gi jiu-jitsu, but a different sport altogether. Jiu-jitsu competitors are encouraged to ply their trade, but the rule set reflects the various sports from which submissions derive.

There's an open question, however, if FILA's premise is fair. The birth and growth of no-gi grappling is almost entirely rooted in the application of jiu-jitsu within MMA contexts. Yes, sambo fighters and judokas are free to enter no-gi grappling tournaments and yes, no-gi grappling has almost taken on a life of it's own, but is ultimately an off-shoot of jiu-jitsu.

To many members of the jiu-jitsu community, trying to rewrite the rules of no-gi grappling outside the parameters from which it grew and arguably originated is to change it to something untenable and unfair. Some change away from pure jiu-jitsu is fine, but rewriting it into something familiar to no one is a bridge to nowhere.

"I don't get to go to a judo tournament and whine that my armlock gets stopped when my opponent picks me up," says Hall. "Because its a different sport. It's my job to adapt to the sport, not make the sport adapt to me. Do you think they would give a lot of ear to me saying that I would be an Olympian if only freestyle wrestling didn't award back exposure points?"

Still, Townsend believes even if jiu-jitsu competitors have issues with the rules, they are welcomed to take an active role in changing them. "The rules are always going to change," he says frustratedly. "If Robert Drysdale or any of these guys want to go to the meetings, we'll take them. They can be involved in the process. People don't realize that. They'd rather just say 'oh, its the rules' and not get involved. That's the great thing about amateur sports: it's democratic."


On the Wings of Judo

Pedro doesn't believe jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling will ever become Olympic sports. In his mind, they're too similar to judo and the Olympic committee won't see the added value in bringing them into the fold. What Pedro does believe, however, is that judo's competitive repertoire can be expanded.

"I think [jiu-jitsu] has its place. Whether it's jiu-jitsu or whether it's a newaza-only judo event in the Olympic games, I'd love to see that."

Pedro's idea is novel, but noteworthy: a newaza (the Japanese word and formal judo term for 'submissions') event should be added to the Olympic judo competition. Top-level jiu-jitsu competitors could make the judo team and only compete in this event. Rather than try to add a new sport to the Olympics where the regulatory hurdles are significantly greater, this change would allow combat athletes to potentially earn multiple medals within the same sport while adding the wrinkle of submissions.

Currently the International Judo Federation (IJF), which is a member organization of FILA, doesn't hold any newaza-only tournaments.

"To be honest with you," Pedro says, "I don't think jiu-jitsu will ever be an Olympic sport unless it is done under the umbrella of wrestling or under the umbrella of judo because it's too similar of a sport to both of those to become its own entity."


The Future

Current ADCC USA chief Carlos Carvalho believes Olympic sanctioning is stil possible. While he admits the lack of drug testing in ADCC is problematic (and a function of funds and organizational infrastructure), he also says ADCC alone has 48 global federations. He states the organization is even open to working with FILA again.

The question is FILA ready to work with ADCC, IBJJF or anyone else. Townsend maintains the door hasn't formally closed on integrating grappling into the fold in FILA. He also says amateur MMA under FILA's watchful eye is growing rapidly.

The truth, though, is that window is likely forever closed. Without the sport's 'consent', such that it exists, FILA likely won't have the desire or momentum to make Olympic sanctioning a reality. And unless something changes before the IOC's 2013 meeting in Buenos Aries, Argentina, jiu-jitsu or no-gi grappling has positively no chance of making the 2020 games (karate and wushu, however, are on the shortlist for inclusion).

FILA and the jiu-jitsu community, despite some measure of earnest efforts, never built a relationship. There never was and still isn't a meaningful bond. Whether that's good or bad for the sport is a matter of who you ask or personal interpretation. We can say jiu-jitsu, gi or no-gi, isn't in the Olympics now and likely never will be. What that means for MMA and any Olympic future it has is hard to tell. What we can say for certain, though, is once the door closes and the moment passes, it's hard to realistically see a way it ever opens again.

Who will advocate on jiu-jitsu's behalf if the sport itself can't and won't do it?

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