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Written by Leandra Freitas,
Martial arts provide an activity stream that has a special place in the overall concert of sports. There are ball sports, collective or individual sports, nautical or winter sports and there are martial arts, where the teaching mainly relates to combat techniques, with bare hands and or with weapons. It is therefore a specific family of sports, defined and unified further by a spiritual and moral dimension, integrating the objective of self-control.
All martial arts, whether of Asian origin (China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and many more) or with roots in other continents, are enriched with a great deal of culture and philosophy, that go beyond the purely sporting dimension. This is obviously the case with my sport, judo. We, as judoka, are very proud of our Moral Code (politeness, courage, friendship, self-control, sincerity, modesty, honour, respect) which is much more than a simple list of values. It represents for us, a guide to be applied both on the tatami and outside of it, in everyday life. It is not possible in a few lines to summarise all the benefits of martial arts, but I wanted to highlight some of what has been done in judo, that which today has a real impact on society. I am talking about gender equity.
First of all, I wanted to provide some clarification as to the differences and commonalities between equality and equity, because in judo, we place particular emphasis on the second concept. Equity is based on the willingness to understand practitioners' contexts and provide them with what they need so that they can thrive and live healthy lives. Equality, on the other hand, is based on the desire to offer the same thing to all people. Just like equity, equality promotes justice, but equality can only be achieved if everyone begins from the same base and has the same needs, which in real life is not always the case. In judo we have chosen to focus on equity, even if we always keep an egalitarian goal in mind.
Since the introduction of prize money for athletes in competition, for example (after 2008), women and men have received exactly the same amounts for equivalent titles. We have the same number of age and weight categories for everyone and the fighting time for men and women is the same. During the next Olympic Games, we will have for the very first time in history a mixed team event, with equal numbers of men and women in each team. In summary, we do not differentiate between men and women, who on the World Judo Tour benefit from the same amount of media exposure.
It is nonetheless true that the mentality, which has prevailed for centuries, still makes us think the same. The hero is very often a man, Bruce Lee and Chuck Noris are in most cases men, mythical heroes such as Superman and the Japanese legend Kintaro are men too, and that it is always the princess who must be saved, is still deeply rooted in people's minds. This is where equity comes in because girls and boys often don't start with equality from the beginning.
How can we make things change? Above all, we must be aware that it is a long-term process that cannot be resolved with a snap of the fingers. Based on the moral code I mentioned earlier, and on inseparable humanist values, we have the capacity to change the starting paradigm which depicts girls to be inferior to boys. According to the cultures and the history of communities around the world, the evolution is more or less fast, but we can note that as world as a whole, the mentalities do evolve, little by little.
It is not uncommon for us to find that countries which had a reputation for significant misogyny, are those which invests the most, today, on women to develop sporting practices and therefore to develop society. There is almost no country on the planet where it is impossible to find women who do judo and who by practising our sport manage to emancipate themselves, not to fight men, but to finally find their rightful place in a constantly changing world.
The key to success in judo is education. We have launched large-scale programmes to integrate judo into school curricula and we are creating educational programmes that restore equity. We are implementing actions to help populations in difficulty, such as through Judo for Peace and Judo for All. These initiatives favour the emergence of new talents. There is still a long way to go, prejudices are sometimes still tenacious, but I see that gradually, there are more and more young girls and women who become the heroines of an entire generation, and even an entire nation.
We have for example, Majlina Kelmendi, World Champion and Olympic Champion for Kosovo, a Muslim country. She now has her own statue in her native country. We have Yarden Gerbi, World Champion and Olympic medallist from Israel, we also have the Cuban Idalys Ortiz, World and Olympic Champion. I could also mention the Korean Min-Sun Cho, two times World Champion (four world medals) and Olympic gold medal in Atlanta (three Olympic medals), who was inducted into the International Judo Federation Hall of Fame in 2018 and have become an international referee, or Salima Souakri of Algeria, who risked her life to defend her rights to be a judoka. These are just a few examples among millions of young girls and women who, thanks to judo, can find their rightful place, without their gender being an obstacle.
I said in the introduction that martial arts are much more than sport. They are tools for changing mentalities through education and mutual respect. In a world that is constantly changing, more than ever we need healthy foundations so that our children can dream of a better world.
Leandra Freitas(32), high level sportswoman in the national Judo team of Portugal from 2003 to 2017 (black belt, 2nd dan), and 2008 Olympian replacer, has participated and won in numerous competitions. She was also ambassador of the 2010-2011 International Year of Youth in Portugal. Awarded medal of Merit by the Portuguese Judo Federation, nominated by the Portuguese Sports Confederation as Olympic Hope, she is currently working at the International Judo Federation (IJF), as member of the IJF Judo for Children commission and Judo in Schools’ program development.