I just got done reading this excellent piece in the New York Times about Rusty Kanokogi, a Judo icon, who has spent her life lobbying for women’s judo to become an Olympic sport. Now she’s battling a new problem: her health.
Diagnosed with kidney failure and multiple myeloma (rare blood disorder), Kanokogi is 73 years old and still fighting.
I have to admit – I’m not really that familiar with Judo, what it is, or why people even choose to fight.
Judoinfo.com says the sport is a refinement of the ancient martial art of Jujutsu. Specifically, they say:
[Judo] is best known for it’s spectacular throwing techniques but also involves considerable grappling on the ground utilizing specialized pins, control holds, arm locks, and Judo choking techniques. Judo emphasizes safety, and full physical activity for top conditioning. Judo is learned on special mats for comfort and safety.
Judo is unique in that all age groups, both sexes, and most disabled persons can participate together in learning and practicing the sport.
Here’s a YouTube video of the 2008 Judo games in Beijing, where Telma Monteiro (Portugal – white) competes against Anna Kharitonova (Russia – Blue), to give you an idea of how the sport works:
Anyway, back to the NY Times article on Rusty Kanokogi.
Her real name is Rena Glickman and she’s from Brooklyn. She learned judo from a man in her neighborhood who had picked it up in the military.
She joined the YMCA and competed in the championships, named Rusty Glickman, a nickname that means “stray dog,” indicative of how women were not explicitly barred from the YMCA championships, but it was certainly unusual for her to be there. So she cut her hair short, taped her breasts down and tried to disguise herself as a boy.
She won the final bout. Her coach asked her if she was a girl, and she nodded yes.
“Had I said no,” she said, “I don’t think women’s judo would have been in the Olympics. It instilled a feeling in me that no woman should have to go through this again.”
Her next step – she said, was, “I took responsibility.” So she started lobbying, started making noise, and kept pushing.
In 1980, Kanokogi mortgaged her house to help finance the first women’s judo world championships, at Madison Square Garden.
By the early 1980s, Kanokogi had women’s judo made an exhibition sport for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and gained medal status for the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Today, she refuses to call herself a feminist – which I think is ridiculous.
It’s clear to me that she defines what feminism is for women in sports. She took responsibility for her sport and its state and created change, something that has positively impacted generations upon generations after her – something that “feminists” have done and should continue to do.
I wish her the best of luck as she battles her current health problems. And I find it incredibly inspiring that she still fights today.
Rusty (Rena) – on behalf of a new generation of female athletes, thank you for all that you’ve done.