During the Tokyo Olympics this year, I was flicking back and forth between channels, desperate for something to grab me. The only sport I really follow is pro wrestling, which has more in common with Hollyoaks than football. That’s because, for me, it’s all about the stories. Underdogs, holding steady against all odds. Veterans, losing in shock twists you could never have predicted. Heartbreak and victory and all the delicious drama in between.
All sports have these elements, of course, but without prior investment and context, it’s often hard for a layperson such as me to feel it. This makes the Olympics, with its endless array of different sports and disciplines, difficult to follow. Sure, you can root for your home country, but I’m not feeling particularly proud of the UK these days.
Then I found myself a few minutes deep into the judo bout between Chizuru Arai and Madina Taimazova, and I couldn’t look away.
I thought Judo was an elegant sport, all technique and finesse. A defensive martial art, about using an opponent’s momentum against them. I’m sure, in a broader sense, this is true. But in Chizuru Arai’s hands, Judo is a violent and dangerous weapon.
Arai, representing the birthplace of Judo, Japan, is a killer. She’s ruthless and relentless in her attacks, showing a physicality I wasn’t expecting from Judo. Positioning, momentum, and artistry seem secondary to Arai’s sheer strength. She hauls her opponent into the air and just as easily brings them crashing back down to earth. Arai is clearly the more aggressive of the two, and perhaps the most skilled. But Taimazova won’t stay down.
Taimazova seems to have been through the wringer already. She enters the fight with a huge, purple swelling above one eye, which only worsens during the struggle. She wears the colours of the Russian Olympic Committee, a team that represents athletes who weren’t involved in the doping scandal that led to the official Russian team being banned. All throughout the games, ROC athletes seem to have something to prove, and against Arai, Taimazova’s willpower is truly tested.
At times, I felt as though I was watching a horror movie. Again and again, Arai takes Taimazova to the ground, tossing her back and forth like a crocodile playing with its food. For her part, Taimazova does anything and everything to survive. She twists and turns mid-move, contorting herself to avoid landing on her back and giving Arai the point. Taimazova’s suffering grows with Arai’s increasing frustration, but there’s no end in sight. After four minutes, the combatants are separated, and Golden Time begins – a kind of sudden death period in which any point scored declares the winner.
After this, the fight goes on for what feels like forever. As the minute’s pass, the tension grows exponentially. Surely that’s a point! That has to be it! But no matter what, Taimazova manages to keep in the game. Until it happens.
Arai, after tens of minutes of grappling, a heart-stopping false finish, and more than a few electrifying comebacks, has had enough. She grips Taimazova by the neck and – unbelievably – chokes her unconscious. This might not come as such a shock to someone more familiar with the rules of Judo, but to me… I couldn’t believe it. I had come in expecting a competition of technique. Instead, I had spent nearly an hour on the edge of my seat, watching the clear underdog escape defeat by the skin of her teeth, only to be overwhelmed in the most violent and brutal way. It was the best survival thriller I’ve seen all year. Pure sporting magic, and my gateway into the world of Judo.