ALMANACK : Strong lure of gentle persuasion

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The Independent Online
BIG sporting events spawn many complex rituals, and one of the most tiresome is the business of accreditation. This is the process in which competitors, officials, hangers-on, coaches and "members of the press" are issued with plastic-wrapped labels declaring name, status, level of access etc. These are then sniffed by security persons and your peers to establish clout, in much the same way that dogs examine each others' bottoms.

The credentials issued at the European Judo Championships last week were among the most comprehensive of their kind: socking great laminated cards with space for a photograph and little coloured squares that denominated where you could go and where you couldn't. The form stated "Position", "Country", "Name" - and "Weight". Hugh McIlvanney: heavyweight. Richard Williams: ditto. Almanack? We toyed with "Feather", but settled for "Light".

Very impressive event, these championships. Clockwork organisation, fine spirit, good sport. The only drawback as far as we were concerned was that it was taking place in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, an atmosphere-free barn in which we have watched international gymnastics, archery, boxing, and now judo - and never seen the place one-tenth full. Mystifying, especially as it is located in what a glossy brochure we picked up called "La capitale du centre de l'angleterre", undeniably "l'une des villes d'Europe les plus passionnantes", which furthermore offers gourmets "Le monde entier sur un plateau". We asked for a hot dog. "It'll tyke 10 minutes," said the operative behind the counter. Merde.

We wandered through doors marked "Private" and "No Unauthorised Access" to the warm-up area. Here a vast space under arc lighting had been spread with judo mats. Athletes in the traditional pyjamas called gis lounged around the edge of the cushioned area, chatting and sipping mineral water. On the mats, pairs of judoji went through their preparatory routines. These involve grabbing a willing team-mate or coach and using them like a sack of potatoes to go through your favourite routines.

The passivity of the sleeping partners in these sessions was quite extraordinary: barely a blink as they were shoved and swung, tripped and thrown. A French girl flipped her coach over a shoulder like a rag doll: up he got, composed, concentrating; she did it again. On the far side of the mat, two Ukrainians lay in a complex embrace, practising escape manoeuvres on the floor. Their movements were somehow languid and violent at the same time, like secretly observed wildlife in a documentary: pre-coital chimpanzees, perhaps.

The other side of a thick black curtain was the main arena, four mats in a line, each staffed by three judges, one seated at each of two corners, the other prowling the mat. There's a great deal of bowing - judoji to judoji, judge to judge, judoji to mat, and so on. The actual grappling aside, all is conducted at a stately pace with great dignity.

The judoji are organised into weight groups for competition purposes. Women's bouts last a maximum of four minutes, men's five. Contests that go the distance will be decided by the judges; those that don't are concluded when one judoji has another trapped in a hold. Being unacquainted with the "gentle way", we found the delicate nuances of ippon, waza-ari and koka a little beyond us, but that was no impediment to enjoyment.

The great thing about judo is its subtlety: the longer you watch, the clearer it becomes that brute strength is secondary to balance, guile, speed and tactics. We enjoyed the dignity and grace of the powerful Georgian Iveri Djikovraouli, the stubbornness of Britain's under-66kg European champion Rowena Sweatman, and the skill of her fianc, the Mancunian light- middleweight champion Ryan Birch, who finished off Sweden's Johan Wahlberge with a deft armlock.

Six British judoji were still in contention for medals at the end of the first day: with a little luck they will be competing in today's finals, when the crowds will be greater, and the hot dogs may even be slower.

PLAUDITS to the Dog and Gun pub rugby team from Kilby, Leicester, who have flown to the US to take the place of Wasps in a tournament in New York. It seems the Pilkington Cup finalists struck a manpower shortage, with eight first-team players committed to overseas tournaments. They pulled out of the trip - and the pub team seized their chance.

"It was a bit of a shock when we found out that they had been expecting Wasps," said D & G's Roy Barnes, "but we are all determined to give it our best shot." Dee, a barmaid at the pub, added: "We've made them uniforms of blue blazers and grey flannels and they've got their Dog and Gun badges fixed to their lapels. We are all really proud of them."

RUGBY fans who fancy a flutter should watch out for the reappearance on the racecourse of Easby Joker, a seven-year-old handicap chaser. The official report on the beast's last run, at Aintree on Grand National day, surely has a human parallel: "Always struggling to get back into it after blundering . . . not doing badly in the circumstances."

COCKNEY humour corner: a streaker nabbed at Fontwell racecourse last week was taken into custody at Littlehampton police station.