A few days before the opening of the Grand Prix in Canada (July 5-7, 2019), we thought it would be interesting to ask French judokas their thoughts on the slow and steady increasing power of Canadian judo.
Montreal 1976—First Time on the Map
When the French team set foot in Montreal, a few days before the opening of the Games of the XXI Olympiad of the modern era, the French team and its summer host were much more than an ocean apart. The five athletes—Yves Delvingt (-63 kg), Patrick Vial (-70 kg), Jean-Paul Coche (-80 kg), Jean-Luc Rougé (-93 kg and Open), and Rémi Berthet (+93 kg)—were all aged 23-29, and, at that moment in their career, shared a total of twelve Olympic, world or continental medals. A significant ratio in the world, at a time when Japan and the USSR, in particular, didn’t leave much place for the competition. In comparison, the Canadian team —also all male (women were integrated as a demonstration in 1988 and for real in 1992)— looks soft. Brad Farrow (-63 kg), Wayne Erdman (-70 kg), Rainer Fischer (-80 kg), Joe Meli (-93 kg), and the late Tom Greenway (Open, and who later became the first Canadian in history to defeat a Japanese judoka) are respectively 20, 24, 26, 19 and 20 years old. At a national level, their main feats of arms look minor compared to their glorious elder, Doug Rogers, 2nd at the 1964 Olympics, 5th in 1972, and 3rd at the 1965 Worlds. The “76 generation? They share a total of three medals at the Pan American Games the previous year, two more from Pan American championships, and a seventh place at the latest World Championships, in Vienna, for the ‘dean’ Wayne Erdman.
True Adventurers. ‘Until now, we would mostly see Canadian in Japan,’ remembers Rémi Berthet, four decades later, in his frugal office on the last floor of the Club de Rhône, in the mythical facilities on the rue de l’Épée in Lyon. A true ‘social Darwinism’ school–to use the expression of Michel Brousse,–the Land of the Rising Sun represented, and still does today, the alpha and the omega for anyone looking to get past the participation so highly praised by Baron de Coubertin. ‘Just like us at the time of the Racing Club of France, they were leaving for a long time, and often alone. They were true adventurers, even though probably because of the geographic distance, the results were slow to come.’ It was an almost mutual discovery between a country and a discipline. ‘Before judo and the Olympics, for me, Canada was the New World, a country of vast open space,’ commented Patrick Vial.
Balm to the Heart. In 1975, Jean-Luc Rougé’s title energized the Occident, especially France. However, one year’s accomplishments don’t always carry through the next one. Patrick Vial’s bronze medal on July 29th would be the Maisons-Alfort native’s best result in his career, and the best of the team. It was a balm to the heart of the ambitious Canadians in the middle of a bad week with the previous loss of the first three Frenchmen, led by Jean-Luc Rougé. For his baptism of fire on this part of the globe, which he would finish exploring with a visit of the Laurentides, the expert ès-yoko tomo nage remembers a ‘surprising atmosphere, with a tatami in the middle of a velodrome, and the off-centre Olympic village.’
The end of Innocence. For Rémi Berthet, Montreal 1976 will always be second to Munich 1972, during which the +93 kg was a substitute, but where the organization, the downtown Olympic village, and the following Beer Festival left an unbeatable memory, although tarnished by the tragic hostage situation of the Israeli athletes and coaches by the Palestinian commando Black September. ‘It was the end of innocence and carelessness at the Olympics. After that, everything became more secured, and four years later, Montreal didn’t have a choice to live with that reality.’ The French team was surprised when, barely off the plane, they saw sixteen, then twenty African countries packing up their suitcases. With the exception of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, they were expressing their disagreement with the participation of New Zealand, guilty of playing rugby matches against the segregationist South Africa under the Apartheid…
Last of the Last. For Jean-Paul Coche, memories of the summer of 1976 will always be raw. At 29, the recent Worlds medallist, triple European champion and sole survivor of the previous French Olympic team, arrived in Montreal convinced of one thing: with the absence of Japanese triple world champion Shozo Fujii: Montreal would be his apotheosis. In his room, his night-time uchi-komi with the bedding made his teammate Berthet nervous, he who had been eliminated on the first day by a Hungarian athlete, and was thinking about the anxiety-provoking future of an imminent sport retirement… For Jean-Paul Coche too, this would be a final round. A nightmarish July 28th, the day after the premature defeat of leader Jean-Luc Rougé. The Marseillais is defeated by Fred Marhenke, a West German whom he had ‘always dominated until now, and during that entire fight.’ His only comfort was to have met friends of his wife, a woman from Cévennes who married a Canadian. The couple take them out for a walk to clear their minds. ‘Their warmth helped me, even though over forty years later, I still wake up and think about that day in July in Montreal. The day when everything should have been different…’
From Nicolas Gill to Antoine Valois-Fortier— The Lone Wolves Era
For the next three decades, and with the exception of the bronze medal won by +95 kg Mark Berger at the Los Angeles Olympics, the Canadian judo in France will rhyme with a name: Nicolas Gill. After four Olympics and six World Championships, Hiroshi Nakamura’s student will end his career with two Olympic medals and three Worlds medals in -86 kg and -100 kg. In 2004, in Athens, for his final tournament at 32 years old, he was named the flag bearer of his delegation. Eight years after his retirement as an athlete, seven years after his reorientation as a coach and high performance director, Nicolas would proudly embrace his student in tears on the side of an Olympic tatami. The student in question, Antoine Valois-Fortier, would represent the passage between two generations at the ExCeL Arena, in London, on July 31, 2012.
From Blue-Collar Worker to Architect. What else could be said of Canadian judo’s big boss, who has been inducted to the IJF Hall of Fame in 2018, that hasn’t already been said in L’homme aux milles mouvements, a book dedicated to him in 2017 by Claude Gagnon? Within the pages, the author relates the progression of the champion, from a specialist of the tatamis to an architect with a clear and attractive vision of what is good for the future of Canadian judo. ‘In the same period covering the glorious years between the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics,’ as we can read on page 64, ‘he decides to become an apostle of judo in his own country. He understands that the challenges extend beyond the combat area, decisions are taken in the offices and with retailers. To better his odds, between a tournament and a school visit, he undertakes university studies in management. He continues his studies with success, studies which might lead him to the offices where political decisions are made and markets.’ To fund his studies, Nicolas Gill would be one of these years” pillars of the judo section of Paris Saint-Germain of French Olympic champions David Douillet and Djamel Bouras, as told by another Olympic champion, Thierry Rey, then President of the club, in his autobiography, Sept vies, published in the fall of 2018. It was a golden opportunity for the autodidact to put butter on his bread, but also to capitalize the weeks spent in Europe training with the best of the best on the Old continent.
Confidence Building. On the women’s side, triple world champion and Olympic champion Lucie Décosse was in the best position to testify on the progression of confidence of Canadian female judokas. The beginning of her career was like a cannonball. Junior World champion in 2000, winner of the Paris tournament in 2001, and Senior European champion in 2002. In 2004, in Athens, her o-uchi-gari ken-ken and the authority of her left-handed stance made her, a 23-year-old, one of the favourites in her category, -63 kg, at the Olympics. Her worst enemy? A nonchalance she’d need awhile to own up to, but to which she dedicated the courageous chapter IV of her autobiography, Je suis restée debout, published in 2015. In Greece, this wait-and-see attitude cost her a victory against Argentinian Krukower, the reigning World champion. A few minutes later, in repechage, Marie-Hélène Chisholm kept her out of a first Olympic podium her potential had promised for a long time. Marie-Hélène Chisholm? A Canadian, two years older than Décosse, who switched from -70 kg at the beginning of the season, and whose highest accomplishment in her new category was a victory at the Belgium Open in the winter and a third place at the Pan American championships during spring. “She was very strong on the floor, and it was my weakness. I never had thought of her before —while she obviously had done her homework.”
The Highest Level. The tactical discipline was a constant feedback from the French athletes during those years when talking about the slow, but steady assertion of Canadian judokas, who, in this beginning of the XXIst century, went from almost nobodies to an ascending power. In London, in 2012, another Canadian almost defeated, once again, the French favourite. Vice Olympic champion four years earlier in Beijing, reigning double World champion, Lucie Décosse must win. And then Kelita Zupancic, 22, four continental medals, one of which was a gold, is giving her a run for her money. The preliminary round–full of doubts for an athlete who is known for being expeditious–lasts 4’30, before an o-soto-gari sends the graduate back to her studies. “The funny thing,” explains the now coach of the female French team, “is that our parents met in the London metro in the morning, wearing shirts representing their respective country! On the mat, I had a clear strategy, but I was cautious of two things: my difficulty to get into it in tournaments, and her confidence, boosted by her teammate’s medal, Antoine Valois-Fortier, the day before.”
Antoine Valois-Fortier. Now 29, the 2012 hero commented, at the time, with a humble and almost academic “I did my homework,” about his London saga that allowed him to eliminate big names like Azerbaijani Mammadli (defending champion in the lower category), double world medallist and British favourite Euan Burton or, at the end of the day, his continental opponent, American Travis Stevens, against which he had known four defeats in a row. Facing him numerous times in important matches during the next Olympiad (semifinal at Worlds in 2014, won by the Canadian, semifinal at Worlds in 2015, won by the French, first round of the 2016 Olympics won by the Quebecois), French Loïc Pietri mentions, behind a tactical strength, traces of an “intelligent planning, customized and consistent, with a true stability and regular outings.” For him, “AVF” became “one of the few on the circuit who knows when to stop and manage a shido ahead,” and, even though the rules encourage a throw, “he knows what to do to adapt.”
Klimkait-Deguchi Generation—Birth of a Nation?
Then, something happened. Slowly, Montreal became, in the eyes of French judokas, more than just a Robert Charlebois song, the Cowboys Fringants headquarters or the landscape of a few lesser-known novels by Bernard Clavel. With Antoine Valois-Fortier’s steadiness and Kyle Reyes’s sparks in the previous Olympiad, more names were added, increasingly regular and numerous. Weekend after weekend, names like Kelita Zupancic, Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard, Arthur Margelidon, Antoine Bouchard or Shady El Nahas were more and more often heard during final blocs. Since the beginning of 2018, the intense rivalry between Christa Deguchi and Jessica Klimkait tinted red and white the epicentre of the -57 kg, a category traditionally dominated by Asians. “I don’t remember fighting against Canadian girls during my junior years,” remembers Hélène Receveaux, from France, World medallist in that category in 2017. “However, during my first Senior World Championships in 2015, in Astana, I was eliminated by Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard. Since then, she went up to -63 kg, and the other two took command. After having fought both of them in training or in tournaments, I’m convinced their rivalry boost the team. I was in a similar situation in the race for the last Olympics, with Automne Pavia, who had to win a European title in the final stretch to earn a spot on the team for Rio.”
Stronger with the Others. Amongst the attentive observer of this increasing power, those in the best position are those who went there. In a previous post, we had mentioned the short, but positive experience of Alister Ward (-66 kg) . His point of view is supported by his friend Mewen Ferey Mondésir, 26, who has already represented France and Algeria, then came back to a first-division level in France in 2016. “I spent three weeks at the National Training Centre in Montreal when Alister was there. It’s great to see the dynamics in place. For the athletes of my generation, Canadian judo was Nicolas Gill and Antoine Valois-Fortier. Today, you have -73 kg, -100 kg, the new generation coming in… What did I see while I was there? I saw a team welcoming foreign partners with a smile. A team in which the selection criteria are clear, where the arithmetic is worth more than the emotions. A team where competence is found, wherever it is. If it’s from elsewhere, it’ll be from elsewhere. The staff is Canadian, Polish, Portuguese, experimented, young… Simply put, you’re evolving in an atmosphere where it’s clear you can become stronger with the others.” Antoine Lamour, -90 kg, first division of Sainte-Geneviève Sports, made similar comments after coming to the National Training Centre in Montreal in August 2018 with his teammate Maxime Flament. “Thinking of what was coming in the fall, we were both looking for a training camp in a foreign country none of us knew. I was just out of a knee surgery, and I needed some fresh air. Kate Guica, after spending two seasons with us at Saint-Geneviève, gave us Nicolas Gill’s number. Surprisingly, despite our level that was slightly below what could be expected from a country like France, they were all simply incredible. Accommodation, facilities, they made sure we would feel comfortable. Even before we got there, we had a training program, and everything just kept going that way. I really felt the spirit of judo while I was there.”
A Rejuvenating Experience? One of the best sources to relate the “thermal cure” effects of Montreal, for having been in judo forever, is Nicolas Brisson. Arriving with his wife and kids in the summer of 2018 because of his “life project and need for change,” the former World title holder of the French team at the Rotterdam World Championships met up with a cousin who’s a personal trainer for the Canadian judo team. Elective affinities quickly made him cross paths with Nicolas Gill, a former teammate of Thierry Dibert at the PSG and his coach for many years at ACBB, as well as with Alexandre Émond, a former opponent retired in 2013. “It’s like a big family. The facilities are incredible, and access to the Institut national du sport is simple, obvious, and easy. At 37, with my experience, I think I can represent the rough partners these guys need to progress. I actually found approaches I’m fundamentally in line with: first, think about performance, and second, work, work, work. I left France thinking I could have done so much more. Here, it’s all up to me. I got back in the game after telling France 2017 would be my last time. Last fall, I went to the France Championships, and while I injured my arm pretty badly, I ranked in fifth place.”
Final Word? French globetrotter Alexandre Paysan, teacher at the Butokuden Dojo in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 2017-2018, now working in Tahiti after having been to Guadeloupe, Vietnam and Qatar, was, with the geographic position of his archipelago (2h45 from Montreal by plane), simultaneously close and with hindsight on the opportunities of Canadian judo today. “I went on the continent for tournaments with my students three times. First observation: the size of the country makes it difficult for athletes to go to all tournaments. For us, it was at least a plane ride and eight hours of driving. Minimum! And it’s the same for Canadians coming from the other side of the country! But the competitions are extraordinarily organized. First, they are lucrative. The weigh-ins are done the day before, the schedule is followed during the tournament. The facilities are heated and clean. Everyone (organizers, volunteers, referees) are there for the judokas. They are nice and calm. Since there aren’t many judokas, they allow combined categories, they make sure the athletes get to fight as much as possible. Then, the videos of these fights–which are the equivalent of a regional or department level in France–are streamed live online! Referees have in-ear headphones… In short, even at the smallest tournament, the organization is high quality. The Canadian federation has a national training centre, organizes coaches’ certification, and gives advice for the development of judo on a beautiful website. That much dynamism makes our federation look old-fashioned. I think the whole challenge of Canadian judo will be to keep the momentum going for a while and not become out of breath. And they must always remember their considerable challenge: make judo known in a country with a great American culture and super developed American sports.” In brief: Montreal 2019, you know what’s coming.
Interviews by Anthony Diao, unless otherwise specified.
 Available in French only. The following excerpt is an unofficial translation.