This topic has easily been my most read post. I never really expected over 1000 people would read it and discuss it on Reddit, forums, and podcasts. As background I’d strongly recommend reading the Slideyfoot post on the same subject. The argument I’m about to lay out can be applied to any combat sport, but BJJ will be used as it presents other unique limitations that FILA Grappling does not such as the governing body issues and having “Brazil” in the name. The basis is comprised of three key parts:
- Why being an Olympic sport isn’t necessarily a good thing.
- The difficulties along the path to becoming an Olympic sport.
- The avenues that BJJ players have to compete in the Olympics.
I will try to continue updating this article as the state of things changes.
Without further ado, here’s the more polished version (original post here):
Why Being “Olympic” May Not Be Desirable
The arguments for wanting to be an Olympic sport are pretty simple – exposure, acceptance, and recognition. Nielsen reported 219.4 million Americans viewed the 2012 Summer Games. If BJJ could be taken to that large of an audience it very easily could gain the level of recognition and acceptance as a world-class sport that its parent art Judo has received. The Olympics are generally recognized as the highest level of competition, and being an Olympian, let alone an Olympic medalist is a feat everyone seems to respect, regardless of what sport it’s in. I’d bet almost any amount of money that a random American is much more likely to know who Apolo Ohno is over Bruno Malfacine.
Unfortunately, the recognition does not come without cost. If we look at how Judo has changed since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1964 we’ll see some alterations made by the IJF which aren’t necessarily good for the sport itself, but make it a better Olympic sport. One of the more prominent examples of these was the 2010 rule change which banned grabbing the legs as a direct attack. In 2013 this changed to prohibit any grabbing of the legs until the match goes to the ground. The accusation is that the IOC handed this decision down to the IJF as a means of differentiating judo from wrestling. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but we accept it via Occam’s razor, and it seems more likely than not to be true based on the 2002 discussions from the IOC about dropping Greco, and that Greco had to apply for a position in the 2016 Olympics. Now, both Freestyle and Greco have been removed as core sports and are only in the 2020 games because FILA made serious changes to the sport (in addition to likely having a better argument for inclusion than the other non-core sports).
Judo as an Olympic sport must play by the Olympic rules, regardless of whether or not it’s good for the community or viability of the sport as a martial art. Failure to do so means potential exclusion. If we assume BJJ would have to similarly differentiate itself from judo we start running into how similar the sports are at heart and what kind of rulings the IOC might enforce the IBJJF to impose.
The next tried-and-true argument is that you’d actually have to watch BJJ matches at the Olympics. Let’s be honest – most of them are boring. In Greco, Freestyle, and Judo we have high amplitude throws and intense scrambles. In order to make BJJ watchable we’ll need rule changes which enforce going for submissions. The culture around stalling positions and the double guard pull will have to go. Immediate stalling penalties will have to be enforced and the risk of being reset to a position when there is no progress becomes a real risk. These are the kinds of rules we see in modern Judo that have made it such a limited rule set. As it stands, I feel Judo could do with the addition of an anti-stalling penalty with relation to groundwork.
The Path To Being “Olympic”
If we only consider those sports which are traditionally combat sports or martial arts there are five in the Olympics currently: Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling, Judo, Taekwondo, and Boxing. The list of sports which have been demonstrations includes Budo (1964), Glima (1912), La canne (1924), and Savate (1924). The list of recognized but not contested sports includes Karate, Sumo, and Wushu. The World Games includes these three plus Ju-Jitsu and Aikido. In fact, Ju-Jitsu has already pushing to try to become an Olympic sport itself, but was much further ahead than BJJ in 2001 since it had a recognized governing body (JJIF) which is still actively working with the IOC and other influential organizations. And despite this, Ju-Jitsu still wasn’t on the list of non-core sports considered for inclusion in the 2020 games yet.
With the IOC being pressured to cull the number of sports and already having dropped wrestling – wrestling, one of the core sports of the ancient games – it’s unlikely that a spot is going to open up for BJJ in the near future. I’d expect it would take decades of lobbying to even reach the status of a recognized non-contested sport and then to non-core sport to be able to apply for inclusion in a given games period. The IOC has noted that they need to keep the games “relevant to sports fans of all generations.” Let’s face it, Judo is only safe because it’s the second most popular sport in the world after soccer. If it weren’t so popular and TV-friendly, it would probably be facing the same elimination as wrestling.
It’s at this point that we have to discuss JSho’s post which outlines the 33 criteria for an Olympic sport and why BJJ does not meet them. Since he wrote it a few things have changed – BJJ has received a much larger international following, Brazil arguably wouldn’t dominate every weight class, there are pushes for anti-doping regulations in the sport, and the IBJJF is more openly accepted as the primary governing body and could apply with the IOC as the recognized international regulatory body. Still, for all the other reasons we’d see a very clear failure to meet all 33. BJJ is still leaps and bounds away from relative gender equality, it has no history in the World Games, and there’s no arguing the similarity to Freestyle and Judo. Here’s a table I’ve cleaned up a bit from the original post:
The point is really that we can compare all forms of grappling on three axis – the area of emphasis (throws or ground work), if it uses the gi, and if submissions are allowed. Similarity is really the notion of two axes being the same. Greco and Judo are both upright sports, but judo has the jacket and submissions so there’s very little risk of someone confusing the two. Judo and Freestyle both allow you to win by pin, but again they are very distinct.
What’s a Jiujiteiro To Do?
The similarity to Judo is inarguable. Given that, I think it’s reasonable to accept that a jiujiteiro with Olympic dreams should compete in Judo. We see individuals who actually practice various forms of folk wrestling native to their countries competing in Freestyle and doing very well. The rule set for Freestyle is pretty open and it’s not too difficult for individuals to take their folk style and adapt it.
One of the jokes in Judo is that judo’s best kept secret is Sambo. People who cross-train in Sambo end up having a real competitive advantage. I know BJJ has the potential to be the same way. I have myself used BJJ to dominate judokas of much higher skill level by forcing the match to the ground where I have more experience. Jiujiteiros who are willing to work on their stand-up, play by the IJF rules, and join the judo world circuit to get ranked stand a real chance to be Olympic medalists. Doing so also has the potential to re-open the rule set of judo. If the top ranked judoka all come from BJJ or Sambo backgrounds I think there would be a lot more sway to open up groundwork again and to argue that the jacket and submissions clearly define “judo” as a different sport from either form of wrestling.
Is Competing In Judo Really BJJ?
This is a new section added in 2015 in response to a point Brendan at OK! Kimonos raised.
I’m going to be perfectly blunt: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a given sport variation on the art of judo in exactly the same way that Judo is a sport variant on the art of judo. As Brendan alludes, if you’re going to practice grappling as an art you inevitably must do so outside the realm of the sport to learn and practice it as it ought to be. You practice your art and then you fit it into the mold of the ruleset you’re competing in. There seems to be this desire to have what we practice and what we compete in be identical, but even in BJJ this isn’t reasonable given that there are so many rulesets to compete in and practice for (NAGA, IBJJF, ADCC).
I will say, even where I practice judo, there’s a huge emphasis on Judo. When we take our rank examinations there’s always discussion about how the test doesn’t reflect the new rules. If you really love grappling, you need to practice it regardless of the ruleset. You can keep competing, but you need to keep the old techniques alive even when they’re not in vogue, because rules change – especially in the face of remaining an Olympic sport.