Covid-19 – Oon Yeoh’s Judo Lesson

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29 December 2018
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Anthony Diao Judoka since 1986 and black belt since 1995, this French journalist born in the United States grew up on three continents. He holds a Masters in International Law and has written in French, English and Spanish for various media since 2003 (sport, culture, society, environment), including the French bimonthly L’Esprit du judo, which he has been collaborating with since February 2006 and its n°2. He is the author of immersion stories from South Africa to Poland via Cuba, Russia, Ukraine at war or Slovenia, he was also the sparring and interpreter of Ilias Iliadis during his first seminar at ‘Insep de Paris, the long-time portraitist of anonymous judokas as unavoidable figures (Ezio Gamba, Jeon Ki-young, Ronaldo Veitía …), and followed athletes such as Antoine Valois-Fortier and Kayla Harrison on a daily basis from 2013 to 2016 on the so-called show World Judo Academy. Its guideline? Treat the Olympic champions and the white belts with the same respect – “give everyone the same attention as if I were writing about my father or mother.”




Covid-19 – Oon Yeoh’s Judo Lesson

At the start of the confinement, a man took the initiative to give a voice to judokas from around the world. Let’s take a look back at his work, which brings us as close to the action as possible during a period that will be remembered and from which perhaps, we can learn some lessons.

And what if one of the most beautiful lessons of judo ever given had been during this dangerous spring of 2020, this pivotal moment when the planet in almost its entirety was suddenly deprived of contact, of meeting and therefore of tatamis? The operation, unprecedented in its genesis, scale and scope, will remain for posterity known as “Judo at the time of the Covid-19”. It will stretch from March 18 to May 22, 2020, a period of two months, four days and seventy-two articles and interviews. A war machine. Or rather: a wartime machine, to paraphrase the speech made on March 16 on French television by Emmanuel Macron, the President of the Republic. A beneficial exercise in freedom of speech, like a giant mondo, virtual, choral, polyglot and free.

Baton in hand, a fifty-two-year-old Malaysian conductor, alone, far from all the contemporary epicenters of the discipline – 5,300 km separate Kuala Lumpur from Tokyo, 7,500 km from Sochi and 10,400 km from Paris. Former representative of the peninsula at the 1993 and 1995 world championships, during a period, general manager of Ippon Books Ltd in London—a publishing house which published technical works by Neil Adams, Jean-Luc Rougé, Hitoshi Sugai, Mike Swain or Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki—this judo teacher and columnist for the national daily New Straits Times set out, for sixty-five days, to take the pulse of the judo planet. Armed with a simple Wi-Fi connection, WhatsApp, an eye on social media and a heart almost as big as the world.

Know how to give

 “At the start, it was a confidential project, intended mainly for the members of my club, the KL Judo Center. My goal was to ‘feed’ them during confinement by interviewing some judokas I knew, and not necessarily top athletes. It seemed like the right thing to do, in return for the fees they paid me.” Everything changed when the former 60kg shared his project with the Dutchman Hans van Essen, one of his oldest partners in crime on the circuit with the British photographer David Finch. “Why don’t you interview the world no. 1s like the Frenchwoman Amandine Buchard or the Italian Manuel Lombardo?” Suggested the man behind the JudoInside site, the Kodokan of all amateurs and professionals of judo statistics. And so, the series “Judo at the time of the Covid-19” was launched.

In November 2018, Oon Yeoh gave a long interview to the former 70kg Iljana Marzok, now a journalist for the German Judo Magazin. He recounted his late beginnings at the age of twenty-one in Texas, when he was a student. He fell in love with this discipline at first sight and practice along side his academic and professional commitments in California, Great Britain and in particular, Germany. Four short years after his debut, the Malaysian defended the colors of his country at the world championships in Hamilton and Chiba, coached by the German Hans-Jorg Opp. In 2011, coming as a spectator to the Grand Slam of Paris, this enthusiast decided to launch the blog JudoCrazy, where he gathered over time rich and varied materials, even going so far as to release in 2017 the number zero of a digital magazine which unfortunately will not have a follow-up.

What was his methodology on the Covid-19 series? JudoInside for stats, JudoBase for videos, and Google Search for articles. The less known the judoka is, the more Oon Yeoh returns to the internet in search of the micro-detail that will break the ice and allow the level of the interview to go up a notch. He tirelessly returns to the questions related to career funding and perspectives on watching videos to progress… Questions by e-mail, answers by the same channel or by Skype, WhatsApp audio or recorded – in short, even cloistered at home, “where there is a will, there is a way” As reminded by the Finnish +100kg Martti Puumalainen, whose interview was published on April 24. And since most of the respondents are not English-speaking, a lot of editing and reformulation sometimes has to be done behind the scenes. Similarly, some responses sometimes call for follow up. “This is where the difference can be made between an average interview and a good interview,” says Oon, a veteran of the exercise. Has he not, in less than ten weeks, interviewed as many nationalities as other colleagues would do in a lifetime?

At first, some of the judokas asked did not immediately grasp the interest in engaging in the exercise and making their personal journey a piece of the great puzzle of world judo that On Yeoh was trying to reconstruct. “And then a coach gave me the key. He was trying to put me in touch with some of his athletes, and many did not respond. You know what? He told me, don’t bother chasing after those who are not interested. Focus on those who are. Your interviews are very, very interesting. If some do not want to play the game, well too bad for them!” The inaccessible fortresses? They just have to stay that way. Oon Yeoh has already moved on. “What I have learned from all these interviews is that there are a lot of great stories, and that these are not just about great athletes. They also relate to lesser-known judokas. This is how our sport can gain popularity: by telling stories like these more often.” It was this palpable sincerity in the approach that motivated, for example, German Olympic champion Yvonne Boenisch to agree to play the game. “Yet she never gives interviews in Germany” confided one of her German friends to Oon. “It is true,” confirmed Yvonne, who is now part of the staff of the Israel team, “but I liked reading your stories, that is why you had a quick yes from me.”

Beautiful stories and little-known realities

This series, systematically relayed by JudoInside as agreed Oon and Hans, aimed to compensate for the content deficit resulting from the cancellation of all the competitions in the spring and  made it possible to reveal stories hitherto confidential, giving the reader a finer vision of the reality of the daily life of others. Let us quote those of the Australians Nathan Katz and his brother Josh, who spend “six to eight months a year” far from their bases, or of their compatriot Katharina Haecker, 63kg and twenty-seven years old, winner of the Grand Prix of Tel- Aviv in January 2020, who was born and trained in Germany. This hard worker, whose life changed a few years ago when she took a sabbatical year to discover her father’s native Australia and opted immediately for this nationality, she spent the confinement in Luxembourg where Alexander Lüdeke, her companion, is national coach… Roman Karasev? The Russian manages three clubs in three countries (Russia, Bulgaria, Israel) and strives to remain confident despite the crisis he feels is coming. Kathy Hubble, pioneer of Canadian female judo retired at nineteen to become a stuntwoman in the cinema before returning to shine on the veteran circuit? “Judo must pay attention to marketing and develop a strategy to consider our future as a sport, otherwise we will lose ground against Brazilian jujitsu,” she prophesized. The Swiss Evelyne Tschopp? A medical student, the double European medalist under 52kg admits her paradoxical career: “The more stressed I am for my exams, the better I fight…” Let’s also mention the Italian Maria Centracchio, third at the 2019 European Games in the 63kg category, who already speaks five languages, or the Danish veteran Tommy Mortensen, who wonders what will become of the youth who will have been deprived of judo for so long, he who does not forget all the self-esteem that this discipline has given him back from a childhood marked by the alcoholism of those around him. Finally, there is the great rivalry between the French Reda Seddouki and Kilian Le Blouch. Kilian was the coach of Reda when Reda won the French championships in November 2019 in the 66kg category. However, Kilian is the n ° 1 French in the same category. At the Rio Olympics, Kilian Le Blouch represented France in the 66kg category and Walide Khyar, his teammate in the 60kg category, was his former student!

Champions stop in full swing

Spring and summer 2020 should have been their time, and that’s why Oon Yeoh offered them a chance to speak and express themselves. You should hear the Canadian Jessica Klimkait, n ° 2 in the ranking in the 57kg category, come to terms little by little to the fact that June 6 will no longer be the date of her much awaited domestic fight-off with Christa Deguchi, her compatriot, current world champion, and n ° 1 in the same category. It is necessary to realize the quiet despair that as since been overcome, of the French Amandine Buchard, who had already had to give up in extremis the Olympic Games 2016 after failing to make the 48kg weight. She became world n ° 1 in the 52kg category and having to deal with the torture of this new reality. If she had taken care to order from Amazon items to fully equip her guest room, the winner of the last Grand Slam in Osaka spent the confinement alone in an apartment without a garden. For someone coming from a contact sport, the mental test is dreadful… In contrast we see the calm Italian Manuel Lombardo, junior world champion 2018 and revelation of the year 2019, in particular for his remarkable performances against the Japanese Hifumi Abe, and winner in December of the Masters in China. Nevertheless, he believes that he has “not yet gained anything convincing.” What can we say about the Dutch Pleuni Cornelisse, world junior medalist in 2019 and someone who had checked all the boxes to compete in March for her first senior Grand Prix in Morocco, before seeing it canceled…

Organized teams

Until March 2020, the international circuit looked like an endless race against time, one event chasing the other, weekend after weekend and often several times in the same weekend. However, even immobilized, a nomadic people worthy of the name cannot resolve to stand still. This is confirmed by the interviews conducted by Oon Yeoh. Training a few months less can be positive because postponing the games is also “the opportunity to train one more year.” While many have brought home rubber bands and training ladders to keep the tempo, some have organized collectively. This is the case, for example, of representatives of national teams from Kosovo (Distria Krasniqi, Nora and Akil Gjakova) or from Israel. Can you even do advanced sessions in quarantine? It’s possible. “Our dojo is located on the property of the Kuka family,” explains the youngest of the Gjakova, winner of the 2019 Paris Grand Slam in 73kg. “Two other guys and I occupy the floor of the dojo where there are rooms. The girls stay in another house near the dojo. We don’t go anywhere except the dojo, so there is no possibility of getting infected. […] In total, there are eleven of us. We train two to three times a day. […] I just tell myself that we are in training camp.”

Taking an approached with the conviction of daily progress can result in a valuable experience. “From the day the crisis started in Europe, I knew it was only a matter of time before it reached Israel,” explains Shany Hershko, the head coach of the Israeli women’s team, who was enthusiastic about participating in the interview when Oon Yeoh requested it. “So we prepared for this long before containment was decided. I divided my Olympic group into pairs so that they were confined together. At the home of each of these pairs, we have installed all the equipment necessary for both physical and judo training. We also made sure that the staff could coach them over the Internet. […] Of course, that is not worth the conditions we can offer them at the Wingate training center but, at least, this approach allows us to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on our training.”


Because paradoxically, as summed up by his compatriot the 66kg Baruch Shmailov─ right-handed in life, left-handed by strategy, and whose motto is “Go big or go home” says everything about explosive judo─the goal of all of this is to come out “better after than before.” Such an aspiration is certainly not incompatible with the ambition to remain a model for the youth, as confirmed by the100kg Peter Paltchik. On March 28, the date of publication of his interview, the winner of the 2020 Grand Prix of Tel Aviv and Grand Slam of Paris, confirmed that he had conducted up to three daily meetings by Zoom with sixteen clubs and a thousand young judokas, using the hashtag #AskPeter. As said by the 48kg French Shirine Boukli, who is on the rise since February 2020 after an epic semi-final at the Grand Slam in Paris against the double world champion, the Ukrainian Daria Bilodid, follow by a resounding victory at the Grand Slam in Düsseldorf, “training during confinement may make the difference when the time comes to resume activities.” Despite at first glance being blocked for the Olympics in her category by her elder Mélanie Clément, the twenty-one year old Frenchwoman is one of those for whom the postponement of a year has restored the hope of going to snatch a qualification in the final sprint…

Advice for life

At the end of almost every one of his interviews, Oon Yeoh asks his guests if they have advice to pass on to others. Seemingly insignificant, the question espouses the notion of Jita Kyoei (“mutual aid and mutual prosperity”) so dear to Jigoro Kano, as Kosei Inoue recalled in a previous article in this blog. The French globetrotter Alexandre Paysan who, with his partner, changes club, country or even continent almost every year since 2013, took this period as an opportunity to take the time “to revise the theory, the rules refereeing or the history of judo.” For Mike Moulders, a 53-year-old blue belt based in Hong Kong, this forced break was also an opportunity to look up and look around. In his case, “there are plenty of mountains and parks, hiking and biking opportunities, YouTube videos… So there is no excuse to stop training.” For Serbian Andrea Stojadinov, who has installed six pink tatami mats in a room to continue practicing with her brother, seeing the glass half full is also measuring the luxury of being able to indulge in guilty pleasures as hectic life of the circuit rarely allows. “For my girlfriends under 48kg, take the opportunity to eat, sleep and watch movies.” From the benefits of meditation touted by Turkish European champion Mikail Özerler (born Slovenian under the name Mihael Zgank) to those of the importance of “laughing a lot” as if to ward off bad luck, as said by his former compatriot Rok Draksic ─ who has since become coach of the Finland team. Including the sense of urgency that animates the Swede Tommy Macias, father of a family for two years and for whom each trip away from his home must now be valued in proportion to the emotional sacrifice that it represents for him, there are as many approaches as there are people interviewed. The American Travis Stevens, Olympic vice-champion at the 2016 Olympics, retired since but very active in the US combat sports scene, offered a tempered perspective: “I think that many high level judokas should take things calmly for the moment. Take this break. Don’t worry about the workouts you miss because everyone is in the same situation, it’s not like others are training and you are not. High-level athletes can easily get back into shape both physically and mentally, once the confinement is lifted. At the end of 2015 I was bedridden for three months after surgery and after two short weeks of training I managed to place fifth in the Tokyo Grand Slam. A month later, I finished second at the Havana Grand Prix. A few months later, I got gold at the Guadalajara Masters. So I know it’s possible. The only thing that matters is to stay positive and safe.”

Those who show the way

The series of interviews is not limited to competitors. Other participants in the judo world were invited to express themselves, like the Belgian journalist Alan Marchal or the Spanish photographer Paco Lozano, who took this opportunity to express his concern about not being reimbursed for his numerous advanced plane and hotel bookings for the next few months … As the weeks go by, the real heart of Oon Yeoh’s subject gradually emerges: it is the impact of this crisis on those who are involved with judo.

“Overall, top level coaches are doing well,” said the Malaysian. “They are paid by their federation and are only waiting for the competitions to resume. This is more problematic, however, for club coaches. As the closure is expected to last, no training equals no income with bills already piling up. And, even when they reopen, will the fighters come back? I’m talking about leisure judokas … And since a lot of people have or are at risk of losing their jobs, coming back to train is probably the last of their priorities for now … Clubs are likely to close. Teachers and club owners should seriously consider going digital to bring new content to their students. They must think wider and invent new programs. In fact, initiatives are flourishing.” The second interviewee in the series after the American William Schrimsher, was Indonesian Subhan Prasandra, who runs six clubs, is more energetic and creative. “I made posters for the youngest to keep their spirits up. I send them tips, circuit training ideas, I encourage them to watch videos on YouTube. I even video call some of my members!” For this dynamic entrepreneur, the ordeal must also be seen as the opportunity to put to rest squabbles that clubs usually engage in. “Perhaps the time has come for the judo community to end these quarrels and move towards unity. Working together is what will make judo grow and it is what we need today, more than ever.” Especially since once the confinement test has been overcome, the hardest will undoubtedly begin, as the Brazilian Sergio Oliveira, a long-time post in Germany, analyzes: “It will be necessary to alleviate  fear so that people return to training.”

The key to success

As a club teacher, Oon Yeoh is primarily concerned by these questions. His understanding was made even more lucid by these two months of interviews and the lessons he drew from it. He admits to having been marked by a quote attributed to Jack Ma, the very media-friendly Chinese CEO of the Alibaba group: “In business, the most important thing in 2020 will be to stay alive. Don’t even talk about your dreams or plans. Just make sure you stay alive. If you succeed, it will already be a good year… “A dark omen shook the Malaysian for a while, even if he was striving article after article to stay away from defeatism and from blissful optimism,  preferring a sharp intensity coupled with a good sense of pater familias in the face of the coming storm: “Over the past decade, the International Judo Federation has done phenomenal work for the development of judo. It did so by increasing the annual number of competitions and making them available for free on YouTube. It’s just fantastic and a blessing for judo. The International Federation has also put in place a solid judo program in schools, to allow more children around the world to discover our discipline. Until then they did not have to take care of the clubs, which managed on their own until the Covid-19 crisis. Today everything has changed, and we must consider a possible massive closure of private clubs around the world. If clubs close en masse you will see a dramatic drop in registrations and in the long run this will have a serious impact on competitions. Because where do most of the top fighters come from? Some come from state-sponsored sports schools, but the majority of the world’s competitors come from clubs. If the clubs disappear, who will train the next generation? What can the International Federation do to help clubs around the world? I’m not sure that this issue has really been considered so far but it should be because it is urgent. The situation is serious for the clubs.”

“It’s hard for our students,” said New Yorker Shintaro Higashi, head of Kokushi Budo and Kano Martial Arts. Some have lost their jobs. “Transparency and communication are very important during these times.” “The worst thing for a club to do is to remain silent and not communicate,” confirms Briton Tom Hayton, author of a practical guide for small entrepreneurs and freelance workers, partly inspired by the state of judokas’ spirit… On March 27, however, Oon Yeoh publishes an interview that deserves to be read and reread with a rested head, as it contains reasons for hope in these pessimistic hours. This is the one with Vince Skillcorn, a professor at the Fighting Fitness Judo in Camberley, England. What does this specialist in yoko-tomoe-nage tell us, whose shoulders of Oon Yeoh still remember with admiration for his mastery of the technique? “In these difficult times, our members need routine, structure, a friendly face and welcome distraction.”

“And why not take the opportunity to take a break?” asked Oon Yeoh. “It is important to remember the power and the need for judo,” continues the technician. “Judo is more than a sport, more than a game. Judo is a story of community, living together, resilience, working hard and overcoming difficulties. If we stop passing these lessons on to our members, where can they find them, especially in these difficult times? More importantly, if we stop now, how will our students take us seriously when we tell them about all of these good judo values ​​such as hard work, resilience, etc.? We have to lead by example. Be creative, think outside the box. […] Judo is not limited to coming to the dojo two or three times a week. It’s a life path. So live judo in your everyday life, and we will come out of this period without you even realizing it.” Supporting his club so that at the end of confinement it is still there: this is the main lesson that Oon Yeoh has learned from the various feedback gathered during this gigantic informal survey. As a remedy to the slippery slope of wait-and-see and passivity, Vince Skillcorn argues bluntly: “If you plan to ask your members to continue paying dues, don’t ask them to do it by charity. Add value so that what they pay for is a quality judo experience delivered online during confinement.

Powerful questions

The distance, the protocol and the language barrier prevented Oon Yeoh from having the input he would have liked from Japan, Russia, Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan from Ilias Iliadis. Similarly, while one of the common denominators of the different respondents was the lack of training partners during but also already well before confinement, as well as the system D, set up to be able to progress despite everything, another constant appeared little by little. “Too few have realized the importance of building an e-reputation and capitalizing on their name, particularly in terms of their post-career, whether it be building their judo or fitness club or even setting up their own business. Besides Neil Adams, how many glories of the eighties or nineties were able to build around their name? Even the best known today can quickly be forgotten. From my point of view, the fighters should take care of that. Other sports do it, but in judo it is not done enough. If they wait until the end of their careers to get started, it will be a little too late.” For a German like Luise Malzahn who takes care to “improve her media presence to give guarantees of professionalism, confidence and authenticity” and takes advantage of the period to invest more in her future functions as police inspector. How many athletes like Giorgii Zantaraia or Yeldos Smetov who categorically refuse to think beyond the next Olympics? “I don’t want to think of anything but my Olympic goals,” insists the six-time Ukrainian world medalist, who has come home empty-handed so far. 2015 world champion under 60kg and Olympic vice-champion the following year, the Kazakh is also blunt: “For me, only gold is acceptable. I swore that without an Olympic gold medal I would not stop my competitive career. If I have to continue fighting until I am forty, I will.”

In late May, as countries gradually began to deconfine, the interview series gradually ended. “It was not easy but it was worth it,” said Oon Yeoh, for whom the experience will also have made new friends. “In any case, I hope that readers will find there inspiration.” This offers a great opportunity for the seekers of meaning to reread them all again. Not all of them have the same intensity, but what does it matter? It is the overall gesture that counts. And thus remember what former world champion and double Olympic finalist Neil Adams said on April 10 on the importance of “not taking short cuts” when it comes to training, in time of quarantine as in normal times. Also, feel the new serenity of Canadian Kelita Zupancic, who blew out her thirtieth birthday candle during confinement and seems to have found the inner peace after which she had been chasing for so many years. “I’ve been watching women’s podiums at the Olympics for a long time and noticed a common thread. Each of these women has quality relationships with those around them. It was something that I found in my turn and there is nothing more powerful than a woman who feels supported, and who can thus leave without fear to pursue her objectives.” You have to see what Aleksandar Kukolj and Nemanja Majdov, the best two under 90kg in the young history of Serbian judo, each tell the other. “I have a deep respect for him and his father,” said the 2017 European champion of his young compatriot who  won the world title four months later in Budapest, when the two men shared the same room at the adjoining hotel. “When I was preparing for the 2016 Olympics, his father took me aside and told me that if I needed four or five guys to train, even if it was just for nage-komi, he would make sure to find me these guys. I will never forget that.” The final word? He returns to the last interviewee in the series, the Spaniard Sugoi Uriarte, European champion, vice-world champion and fifth in the Olympic Games, now president of the Valence Club de Judo and determined not to stop progressing despite being in Spain, a country bruised by the epidemic and for far too long plagued by internal quarrels in the structuring of its judo. A luminous interview, as it reveals the determination of a man who knew how to turn the page from fighting for himself to devoting his time towards his family, in order to “give them the opportunity to become better than I was. Or, at least, the possibility of having more means to progress than I have ever had.” His criteria for recognizing who has the potential to become a champion and who does not? “Observe their reaction to defeat.” A perfect conclusion for this project that will remain. When the worst (or almost the worst) becomes possible, the best attitude of a judoka is not only to deal with it but to deal with it intelligently. – Anthony Diao

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