2000 favorite is back

Call it a human chess match. Call it a fight. Even call it a couple of people wrestling in their pajamas.

Just don't call it karate. Because the last thing you want to do is tick off a judo fighter.

"That's the biggest misconception about our sport," 2004 Olympian Jimmy Pedro said. "Judo always gets lumped together with taekwondo, but that's like saying volleyball and basketball are alike because they're both played with a ball."

Judo is a descendant of the ancient martial art of jujitsu, and competitors do wear the traditional "gi" (prounounced GHEE) during a match. But that is where the likeness ends.

More akin to Greco-Roman wrestling than the other martial arts, judo is a sport of throw moves, pins and strangle holds, not kicking and punching. Some judo fighters describe their sport as the thinking man's wrestling match.

Having quickness and confidence is only part of the equation. Similar to tennis, judo is a sport of matchups and styles; some techniques clash where others may dominate.

Unlike tennis, though, you don't get days, or even hours to figure out your competitor's tactics. You get one day of five-minute matches ... if you're lucky.

Or you lose your concentration, get thrown square onto your back, the victim of a move called a "ricebag reversal," or maybe a "mountain storm," and your day is over in 30 seconds.

"It's not a game of brawn, but rather anticipating your opponent's next move and using their strength and energy to your advantage," Pedro said.

One more tip: Don't call it "an emerging sport," an insult even the U.S. Olympic Committee heaps on the discipline.

"That's how the USOC describes judo," Olympic team coach Bob Berland said. "We've been 'emerging' since the sport's Olympic debut in 1964."

Welcome to the world of the perpetually marginalized Olympian. Fencers, biathletes, archers: all better known around the world than at home.
All looking to land a spot in the American sports fan's consciousness for more than a fleeting moment every four years.

A judo athlete's challenge? To convince a culture mesmerized by the flame-throwing karate-kicking heroics of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to appreciate the more cerebral, strategic techniques of their sport. To be sure, while American sports fans know little about judo, it is the American judo athletes who still have one thing to learn: what it feels like to stand on the top step of the Olympic podium.

"Trying to be the first," said Pedro, a 33-year-old father of three from Methuen, Mass. "It's a big part of why I'm competing. Why I get up every day and what I'm trying to accomplish."

It is also why Pedro, a three-time Olympian (bronze medalist in 1996), came out of retirement.

As the reigning world champion from 1999, Pedro was the clear favorite heading into the 2000 Sydney Games. He was going to do it, going to be the first ... then he had a split-second loss of concentration in his first match and he was beaten. Just like that his hopes of a gold medal were gone. He fought his way through to the bronze-medal match only to fall victim to a shoulder wheel throw, finishing fifth.

Points are scored in judo, but typically a match ends in one of four ways: throwing your opponent squarely on his/her back, pinning and holding your opponent for 25 seconds, and securing either a strangle hold or an arm lock until your opponent cries uncle, or in official terms, submits.

"I was devastated," Pedro said, "and just burned out after 14 years of competition so I decided it was time to retire."

He spent time with his family, got a job with Monster.com in Maynard, Mass. and coached judo part time.

He was content for a couple of years, but for an athlete as driven as Pedro, content was not enough.

"I missed the life of an athlete, having a goal and waking up every day with a focus," he said. "But when I decided to come back, I didn't come back just to make the team. I came back because I felt like I could win."

For the past two years, back under the tutelage of his father and lifelong coach Jim Pedro Sr., Jimmy has fought his way to a 68-4 record. He has beaten the best in the world; in fact, of the 35 competitors he could face in the 73 kg category in Athens, Pedro has beaten all of them but one.

"I feel fresh," he said, "and I'm definitely back in form."

Pedro is heading into these Games flying slightly under the radar and enjoying competing more than ever. In spite of that, he is on the verge of making history and he is not the only one who feels the excitement.

"Winning a gold medal at this Olympics would be a dream come true for all of us," said Berland, who in 1984, was the first American man to reach the finals, winning a silver. "That would be a huge accomplishment, and being a part of this, feeling like I had a small thumbprint on that process, is incredibly exciting."