Rustam Minnikhanov: ‘Judo is one of the most popular sports in Tatarstan’

Read when and where the martial art that teaches kindness and peace appeared, what obstacles judo went through in Russia and what’s happening to it now in Realnoe Vremya’s report

Rustam Minnikhanov: ‘Judo is one of the most popular sports in Tatarstan’
Photo: Realnoe Vremya

When the Grand Slam — an international judo competition — was hosted in Kazan this May, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov claimed that judo is one of the most popular sports in the republic. More than 4,500 people do judo in the republic, the number of fans of this wrestling grows year after year. Moreover, judo confidently ranks second in the number of countries that have their own federations of this sport. Only football has more. As for martial arts, from a perspective of popularity, judo doesn’t have equals. 2012 Olympic champion in the +100 kg weight category Tagir Khaybulayev — a gold medallist of European and world championships — told Realnoe Vremya’s journalist about this in an interview. Read in our online newspaper’s report what else the champion talked about, where judo comes from and can teach harmony and peace as a martial art, the history of its development in the world, in Russia and Tatarstan, what successes our athletes have achieved in the last years and why it is so important for the professional sport to feel support today.

Sumo — ju-jutsu — judo

Perhaps, it is hard to believe that judo (Editor’s note: “gentle way” in Japanese) is an heir of Ju-Jutsu (Editor’s note: globally, the name is jiu-jitsu). The wrestling, in turn, stems from the traditional Japanese wrestling sumo.

May 1882 can be considered the starting point in judo’s independent history when 21-year-old Master Jigoro Kano founded the Kodokan school at the Eisho-ji Buddhist temple. But everything began much earlier when still very young Kano who didn’t have distinctive either power and strong physique decided to learn the secrets of jiu-jitsu, which allowed a more fragile person to win a heavier and stronger one. The willingness Jigoro mastered the teaching with caused respect and surprise among his teachers. Shortly, the next master told him: “I have nothing to teach you...”

Summarising the experience of different schools, systematising all the best allowing to use the opponent’s energy against himself and excluding those life-threatening techniques, the master created new teaching — wrestling that was named judo. It is a sport that doesn’t teach aggression but keeps a balance and creation of a harmonically developed individual. Master Kano himself believed that judo was not only a martial art without weapons but also a philosophy of everyday life and the art of self-improvement. It is not accidental that the Judo Moral Code includes such qualities as:

  • politeness,
  • courage,
  • sincerity, honesty,
  • modesty, self-control,
  • loyalty to friendship,
  • respect for others.
Jigoro Kano. Photo: Kodokan

As early as 1886, judo was not only recognised in Japan nationwide but also became a mandatory subject at police and military academies, colleges and higher educational institutions.

The first school opened in France in 1889, soon it did in London. US President Theodor Roosevelt became keen on this wrestling. Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore liked the philosophy of judo.

The International Judo Federation was founded in 1951. Jigoro Kano’s only son and heir Risei became its president. In 1956, Tokyo welcomed competitors of the first world judo championships. Of course, it had a way to go compared to today’s scale: just 31 representatives from 21 counties contested the title of the strongest.

The first Olympic tatami was unfolded in 1964. It is symbolic that these Olympics were hosted in Japan.

Today the International Judo Federation is 178 nations. About 8 million people do this wrestling regularly in Japan alone. Around the world, the number is over 20 million, of which some half a million are in Russia.

Vasily Oshchepkov is a man who presented Russia judo and sambo

Vasily Oshchepkov was born on South Sakhalin, which was then a part of the Russian Empire, in 1892. However, as a result of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the island was ceded to Japan, and the 13-year-od orphan boy turned out to be a subject of the Japanese emperor.

Japanese Archpriest Nikolay actively participated in the orphan’s fate. The boy studied at a religious seminary in Kyoto. He also got first acquainted with judo there. In October 1911, the 19-year-old young man managed to enter the Kodokan school founded by Jigoro Kano. Despite all the hardships, while people in Japan were very jealous about foreigners’ successes in traditional martial arts, by the summer of 1913, Oshchepkov managed to obtain the master’s degree — 1st dan (first Russia and fourth foreigner in general).

When Oshchepkov returned to Russia in 1914, he was conscripted for service at the staff of the Priamurye Military District in Khabarovsk. Later, he served in the counterintelligence office of the fortress’s staff in Vladivostok. There, in Vladivostok, he opened the country’s first judo club in 1914. Three years later, in the summer of 1917, the first international meeting in the history of judo took place precisely in Vladivostok: guests from Otaru who arrived with Jigoro Kano’s other student Tomabeti Hitedosi competed with Oshchepkov’s students. Oshchepkov was granted the next master’s degree then — 2nd dan.

Oshchepkov (centre), Vladivostok, 1914 or 1915. Photo: sport25

The period of the Civil War didn’t pass Oshchepkov by. In 1919, he was conscripted into Kolchak’s army. He served in the Transportation Office of the Japanese Expedition Corps. He started to cooperate with Bolshevik intelligence at this time. After the end of the Civil War, the master didn’t leave the service. A few know that precisely Oshchepkov is the predecessor of legendary Richard Zorge as an illegal resident of Soviet military intelligence in Tokyo. According to the legend of benshi, a person who translated and commented on films, he showed films for Japanese troops communicating data about their location and weaponry to the homeland. Precisely the Monk (the intelligence officer who worked under this pseudonym) found the first data about the Japanese side’s active work on the creation of chemical and bacteriological weapons.

In 1926, Oshchepkov was called back to Russia. His work as intelligence office ended, but the work of the coach and mentor truly began. His judo was further and further from classic art. It was enriched with new techniques to protect from opponents armed with cold weapons and firearms. Together with his students Viktor Spiridonov and Anatoly Kharlampiyev, he offered classes in the Central House of the Red Army, taught students of the State Physical Culture Institute. A manual for militants’ physical training was printed with his active participation.

Founder of the Russian judo and sambo school Vasily Oshchepkov. Photo: sport25

On 2 October 1937, Vasily Oshchepkov was arrested. He was accused of spying in favour of Japan. His service in Kolchak’s army also played a role. The master didn’t live to see his sentence — he died from a heart attack in the prison cell on 10 October. Neither did he live to see another triumph: on 16 November 1938, the USSR Sports Committee issued a decree On Development of Freestyle Wrestling, the one that was later renamed as sambo. The teaching created by Oshchepkov on the basis of judo and rescued by Kharlampiyev who is today usually called the creator of the sambo school is in its foundation.

As for classic judo, it was forgotten for long 20 years until 1957 when Oshchepkov and the wrestling were justified. It is interesting fact that there was created a sambo federation in Japan in 1965, a year after judo became an Olympic sport.

The official history of judo in Russia

Or, more precisely, in the Soviet Union. It dates back to the early 1960s when a judo club was created in the USSR Sambo Federation and the country became a member of the European Judo Union. Soviets wrestlers started to fight for the first positions on podiums and gold medals from the first days. Two golds at the 1962 European Championships are evidence of this.

Four wrestlers represented the USSR in judo at the 1984 Olympics in Japan: Oleg Stepanov, Aron Bogolyubov, Parnaoz Chikviladze and Andzor Kiknadzze. All four athletes came home with bronze medals.

Another milestone took place in the development of judo in the Soviet Union in 1972: a judo federation was founded in the country according to a decree of the USSR Sports Committee. The first All-Union competitions in this wrestling were held too. A year later, its status changed and started to be called the USSR Championships. 10 years later, the women’s judo division opened in the federation. Soviet judo was in its heyday then. Top championships and tournaments almost always resulted in gold medals. Everything changed after the dissolution of the USSR. The National Judo Federation of Russia, which became an heir of the Soviet structure, was set up in 1991. But Russian athletes didn’t manage to achieve noticeable accomplishments from 1995 to 1999.

President Vladimir Putin is a fan of judo, master of sport and owner of the 8th dan. Photo: mk.ru

In 1999, Honourable Master of Sports Vladimir Shestakov chaired the federation. The new stage of judo’s development in Russia is associated with his name. He managed to make up a team of the best specialists, which quickly yielded a result. Russian wrestlers managed to win three medals — a silver and two bronzes — at the 27th Olympics in Sydney, Australia, as early as 2000. Judo in Russia expands its scale more and more. Perhaps, because President Vladimir Putin is one of the most renowned supporters in the country. In this sport, he is a master of sport, he has the 8th dan.

“With the election of Mr Putin who himself did judo as president of Russia, this sport started to be paid more attention in the country. After the Olympics in Beijing when we didn’t have medals at all, Mr Putin paid attention to this. He asked the management why we had such bad results. Then it was decided to reset it: experienced specialist Ezio Gamba was invited to change training conditions. And this gave a result: in London (Editor’s note: the Summer Olympics in 2012), we had 5 medals — 3 golds, silver and bronze. In Rio de Janeiro (Editor’s note: the Summer Olympics in 2016), we had two golds and one bronze medal. Few had expected this — there had never been such a result,” said one of the gold medallists in London, European and world judo champion in category +100kg Tagir Khaybulayev told Realnoe Vremya’s journalist in an interview.

Winner of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, judoka in +100 kg category Tagir Khaybulayev. Photo: wikimedia.org

The annual top-class Moscow tournament and the Russian President Cup were recognised around the world. The Russian judo school returned the status of one of the world’s strongest schools in the world and doesn’t seem to want to give in the title.

Judo in the Republic of Tatarstan

Judo started to be actively developed in the republic in 1971 when the first clubs opened in Kazan (at Tasma union) and Naberezhnye Chelny (at KAMAZ factory). Three years later, Tatarstan wrestlers became regular competitors in Russian, USSR, European and world tournaments and championships. Amir Minlebayev became the first Tatarstan resident to become a USSR Championships medallist.

Vitaly Kuznetsov is the first Tatarstan judoka to step onto the Olympic podium. Photo: kitap.tatar.ru

At the Olympics in Munich in 1972, Vitaly Kuznetsov who competed in the absolute category won a silver. By the way, he also became a vice European champion in the team event in 1978, silver medallist of the World Championships in 1979, European champion in the team event in 1979, was second at the USSR championships four times and first once. Also, he won the gold of the world sambo championships twice and stepped onto the highest position of the European podium. In 1977, he won the World Cup. Another representative of Tatarstan judo competed for Russia at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. However, Zulfiya Garipova managed to finish just seventh.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the judo movement in Tatarstan was decentralised for some time. The clubs sponsored by enterprises survived and continued operating. Some clubs had to close.

The Tatarstan Judo Federation was founded in 1996. Russia’s Honourable Coach Vladimir Osipov who trained 109 Russian masters of sports in his career was its unchangeable president for 16 years. He witness the Russian Championships in Kazan in 2011.

In 2012, before the 27th World Summer Universiade, the management changed, and then head of the Tatarstan office of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service Lieutenant General Fayaz Shabayev led the federation. Judo started cementing positions not only as an elite sport but also as amateur sport. New clubs open in the republic every year. In 2015 alone when Tatarstan hosted the Russian junior championships, 7 new clubs started to work — 5 in Kazan and 2 in Naberezhnye Chelny. In 2016, Kazan hosted the European championship. More attention is paid to developing judo in the republic: there was created a reward system for the best sports organisations’ successful work — gift cards to buy tatami and sports equipment.

Judo in Tatarstan today

In August 2017, Pavel Nikolayev — USSR judo sports master, head of the Tatarstan Investigative Committee who was then vice president of the federation — chaired it.

In August 2017, Pavel Nikolayev chaired the Tatarstan Judo Federation. Photo: judo.ru

Changes aimed to increase the popularity of this sport more and raise the bar of achievements began in the federation approximately at the same time:

“The Tatarstan Judo Federation set a course for reforming the existing work system of our coaches and sports schools. All the coaching staff will be certified, while all gyms will be inspected. It is important for us to teach judo at a high level and have teachers who correspond to their big title. Today judo in the republic has quite good results in the number of children and youth doing this sport. However, the performance of young athletes leaves a lot to be desired. The work with judokas’ teachers is a priority to upgrade the coach’s status, his education, there will be set up control over the compliance with moral and ethical norms. A new system of incentives and rewards have been introduced this season to stimulate the activity for all decently working coaches and successful athletes. We have potential, our own traditions and a good school,” the newly elected president of the federation stressed at a general meeting.

The appointment of a new head coach became one of the first novelties. Ex-coach of Russia’s national junior team, Honourable Master of Sport, European champion and winner of the Goodwill Games Vladimir Drachko occupied the post.

Vladimir Drachko: “I would like to have here not only Olympians but also at least Olympic medallists.” Photo: Realnoe Vremya

Later in an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Drachko said that he arrived in Kazan together with single-minded people at Pavel Nikolayev’s invitation not to change the existing traditions of Tatarstan judo but to create one team on this basis and existing infrastructure.

“Compared to other regions, Mr Nikolayev has provided now good financing. Not all regions and districts have such funding as here. There are conditions to both work and grow staff. As for the lads, some are good enough. Most importantly, they should be interested. It is necessary to show them the direction and go as one team. Please note, not as a staff but as a team. Staff means working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while a team is 25 hours a day. I mean one can call any time, and people even though they aren’t nearby move in one direction and think about the same thing,” he emphasised and added, “I would like to have here not only Olympians like Zulfiya Garipova but also at least Olympic medallists. In fact, this is what we were invited here for.”

In answer to the question about what components were necessary for success, Vladimir Drachko replied:

“According to it, it takes four components: a coach, time, money and a site to learn this. The same applies to life. People should understand that this isn’t the most important thing but a foundation where you could move forward and improve.”

The republic does its best to make sure athletes have a place and people to do sport with: the Tatarstan president participated at that general meeting, which is in itself proves how serious attention the republic pays and is ready to pay to judo in the future. Rustam Minnikhanov didn’t come empty-handed: the creation of two full-scale specialised judo centres in the region with the support of the republic became the good news for the community: in Kazan, at Batyr reconstructed sports school, and in Naberezhnye Chelny.

The honourable black judo belt was given to Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov. Photo: the Tatarstan president’s press service

In presence of team Russia’s head manager Ezio Gamba, Executive Director of the Russian Judo Federation Valentin Khabirov (both also arrived in the republic to participate in the general meeting) gave the Tatarstan president the honourable black judo belt for merits in developing this sport.

By the way, the reconstruction of the Batyr sports venue ended in early 2019, and Tatarstan sambo and judo teams as well as the republican youth Olympic reserve school started training. About 1,000 people of different ages — from 5 to 60 — attend the halls of the sports centre on a regular basis.

Nobody doubts that Kazan is gradually becoming not only a sports capital in the wide sense of the word but also one of the Russian judo centres. The Grand Slam tournament, which took place in the Tatarstan capital in May 2021, became another confirmation of this.

Kazan hosted the Grand Slam international judo tournament in May 2021. Photo: tatarstan.ru

“Judo is one of the most popular sports in Tatarstan. Today more than 4,500 athletes do this martial art, and their number grows year after year,” stressed the Tatarstan president at the opening ceremony of the competition. And he added: “We have a big dream of hosting the world judo championships in the republic.”

First Tatarstan champion in 20 years

September 2021 became a real landmark for Tatarstan judo: the republic had its own Russian champion for the first time in 20 years. It is the student of The Olympian sports school in Naberezhnye Chelny, Russia’s Master of Sport in Judo Niyaz Bilalov. He didn’t have equals in the category +100 kg.

A Tatarstan resident was on top of the podium of the Russian Championships for the first time in 20 years. Photo: Russian Judo Federation

But this isn’t the only achievement of Tatarstan judokas at the championships in Maikop (Adygeya) that gathered more than 1,500 strongest wrestlers from all Russia. Batyr judo centre’s athletes Aygul Bagautdinova and Alexandra Gimaletdinova won a bronze in 63 and 78 kg respectively. One of Russia’s foremost judokas, Olympic champion in London in 2012 Tagir Khaybulayev thinks that the most noticeable changes in Tatarstan judo have been in the last nine years:

“With the arrival of Fayaz Shabayev, then Pavel Nikolayev, who is now president of the federation, after him (he also did judo), coaches were invited to work in the republic. And the funding is very serious. Consequently, there is a result in junior, U-23 and senior competitions. Niyaz Bilalov recently made us very happy. We pinned hopes on him that he would go to the Olympics to Tokyo, but he lost to decent lads,” he noted.

Tagir Khaybulayev: “Niyaz is lucky in this respect that he came across such a person as Mr Sulteyev.” Photo: twitter.co

Tagir Khaybulayev thinks that judo is one of the most popular, which means very competitive, sports. Every weight category has a lot of decent representatives. And I am talking about not only the situation in the world where leaders change almost every year but also in every country and region. He noted that a defeat in one competition isn’t a reason to let down and added:

“Niyaz has started a new cycle now. He immediately won the Russian Championships, showed that he lost neither shape nor morale to everybody. I think it is the groundwork for the next Olympics. I hope both for Niyaz and Rustem Sulteyev who supports him. He not only supports the athlete financially but also psyches him up morally.”

Niyaz Bilalov has started a new training cycle now. Photo: press service of the Tatarstan Judo Federation

Rustem Sulteyev — first vice director general of production and commerce at TAIF JSC — himself was a professional wrestler and weightlifter. He is in touch with sport and believes that promising youngsters need help. But he doesn’t think it is necessary to make this public.

“Mr Sulteyev understands athletes’ needs. In reality, few people understand both sport and athletes, realise the importance of sport and what sport gives the athlete, the republic and the country. Mr Sulteyev in this respect is a big person. There is a handful of such people who would sincerely love and support sport,” Tagir Khaybulayev is convinced.

Professional sport is a job. It is tough, responsible but favourite, the Olympic champion highlights.

“It must give one pleasure. If the athlete doesn’t enjoy the sport he chose, he can achieve little. The work on tatami must give one pleasure, a desire to win, be the best. Yes, we don’t have a lot of money like in football or ice hockey. If you want to make money, judo is not the best option. But certain investments are necessary for serious training. When you reach some level, the staff is required to become a European, world, Olympic champion: a personal coach, sparring partners, a doctor, masseur, it is necessary to pay for the trip to a camp, for accommodation. While camps can be around the world. As for Niyaz, I think he is lucky in this respect that he came across such a person as Mr Sulteyev who sincerely loves sport, supports, know what it is first-hand. I know that their cooperation isn’t limited to financial support. Mr Sulteyev sets goals for Niyaz. He knows how to support and psych up, to support morally. The athlete working on his own is less motivated, but when he feels the support, sees that people sincerely root for him, are happy about his successes, the athlete sees no limit and tries to compete with a greater desire.”

Arseny Favstritsky
Tatarstan