x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Olympic calling is still on hold for jiu-jitsu practitioners

Jiu-jitsu supporters have mixed opinions on bringing the sport to the Olympics, explains Osman Samiuddin.

Gabrielle Garcia, left, says she would rather reach for the gold in the UFC as an MMA fighter than gold in the Olympics
Gabrielle Garcia, left, says she would rather reach for the gold in the UFC as an MMA fighter than gold in the Olympics

To get a sense of what jiu-jitsu means to its practitioners, it is worth talking to those who have left the sport and who are, in a sense, lapsed.

BJ Penn, the legendary UFC Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter made his name in jiu-jitsu, the first non-Brazilian to win a world title, in 2000.

But he moved to the UFC, he explains, frankly, to "chase the money". Professional tournaments such as the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Championship were not around and a career had to be made. But as he spoke as a special guest of the tournament on Tuesday, a day before it began, it was clear that he cherished the ethos of the martial art he grew up with.

"There's so much crap around the UFC," he said. "Jiu-jitsu has a purity, and I've always remained around it, in the gym, training students, grappling, watching competitions. I don't miss competing but I could see myself doing it again."

It is that ethos - an untouched, amateurish spirit, the camaraderie and the nobility of the fighting itself, with no blows - that fuels the debate over whether jiu-jitsu can, should and ever will become an Olympic discipline.

To be fair, it is not so much a debate as it is a question that has never gone away. But with Brazil being the next Olympic hosts and the spiritual home of the martial art, might not the questioning become more vigorous?

On the surface it has much going for it. It is growing in popularity and participation across the world, though the continuing pre-eminence of a single country like Brazil - whose influence and domination is vast - works against the Olympian ideal.

It is also safer than the MMA, for example, with whom jiu-jitsu's fortunes remain inextricably linked.

There is probably actually a louder push for MMA to be included in the Olympics. That will never happen given how violent it is, but it makes, by comparison, jiu-jitsu a more attractive option, with less blood and fewer injuries.

Back in 2007 there was a concerted effort to explore an Olympic push but for various reasons, political and intrinsic, the movement petered out. The most intriguing, though, is that unlike so many other sports wanting Olympic recognition, jiu-jitsu fighters themselves are not sure whether that is what they want.

The Brazilian legend Renzo Gracie, scion of the founding family of the martial art, has said recently that he worries Olympic recognition may not only take control of the sport away from the various organisations that run it, but it also could, as has happened with judo, change the nature of jiu-jitsu itself.

"My goal is to go to the UFC and into MMA," said Gabrielle Garcia, the legendary Brazilian fighter who won her fourth gold medal in Abu Dhabi on Friday. "My dream isn't really the Olympics. OK, for everyone it is, in a way, but for me the UFC is bigger."

Garcia said the highly technical nature of the sport and its scoring system works against it in drawing a wide TV audience.

"People on TV do not understand the movements and it is very different from judo, where the guy who stays on top is the one who wins," she explained. "Here is it different."

Garcia is one of many in the sport who see MMA and Penn's path as a natural step up, and it is the leaking of talent which might eventually become a concern.

"What tournaments like this are going to do is that they will keep a lot of the talent in jiu-jitsu," Penn said. "That talent is not going to go into the MMA. I don't think jiu-jitsu needs the Olympics, but I think it would help it tremendously. It would get more people involved and make something like this tournament even bigger, more aspirational if, for example, there was an Olympic gold medallist competing here. Imagine that."

It is not happening anytime soon, though, Rio 2016 or not. The dropping of wrestling from the Olympic roster, one of its oldest events and from which jiu-jitsu draws heavily, does not bode well either.

"Maybe," smiles Garcia and concludes flippantly, "over the next 20 years or so."

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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