This sounds like a simple question but it’s not. What is simple to understand is that in 2013 the International Judo Federation decided that after over 100 years of allowing leg grabs in competitions – they would completely ban leg grabs going forward from that point.
So, why are leg grabs banned in judo?
We have several competing theories for why leg grabs are banned in Judo, including: the Russians were abusing leg grabs, leg grabs made it too easy to counterattack and the idea that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was going to ban Judo because they felt it was the same as wrestling.
Let’s see which one of these statements hold up under scrutiny.
What Is A Leg Grab in Judo?
A leg grab is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the act of grabbing the legs or trousers of your opponent in order to get them off balance.
Leg grabs were initially banned in 2010 during tachi-waza grappling. That is standing grappling. Then in 2013, this ban was strengthened, and it became completely illegal to even touch your opponent’s legs or trousers during a standing grapple.
It’s worth noting that Judo has a specific rule for the length of trousers which must be no more than 5 cm above the ankle for a competition bout. So, for the most part “legs” and “trousers” are the same thing from a Judo perspective.
It’s also worth noting that this is not the first time that a technique was banned from competitive Judo. The last time was in 1980 when a foot sweep known as kani basami was ruled to have been responsible for a Japanese man’s broken leg.
Head dives have also been banned for reasons of safety.
So, Why Did Leg Grabs Get Banned In Judo?
Now, this is a good question. The reason that there is a huge amount of speculation regarding this issue is that the International Judo Federation made no official statement with regards to the thought process which went into the ban.
You’d expect a sport’s governing body to speak up and share their ideas, but this wasn’t the case. Therefore, ever since the ban came into effect – the Judo community has been trying to guess as to why you’d need to ban the leg grab.
The Russians Were Abusing The Leg Grab
Given that the Russians don’t always have the best of reputations for playing fair in the Olympics it might seem that this is a reasonable guess.
The trouble with this theory is two-fold. Firstly, while the Russians were very successful in the sport at the highest levels when leg grabs were permitted, they are still very successful now. If their technique had relied on overuse or misuse of the leg grab, you’d have expected them to have fallen down the rankings.
The second issue is this – there was a Judo professional in 2009, with a technique that made leg grabs incredibly powerful. He would hunch over leaving himself almost immune from any attack that his opponent made, while leaving his hands low to effect a quick leg grab to bring their opponent to the floor.
He was so good at this that in the 2008 Olympics, 2 years before the initial ban, he won the Gold Medal in the 100 Kg Judo weight class.
The trouble with this? Well the wrestler in question was Tuvshinbaya Naidan and he wasn’t from Russia but rather he was from Mongolia. It is fair to say that many of the Russians in the lower weight classes began to emulate his style, but none were as successful with it as he was.
You can see his performance in the Olympic Quarterfinals in the video below and see how he keeps his body back from his opponent’s reach while grabbing their legs out from under them.
Some Judo purists felt that this dragged the image of Judo down and instead of being a traditional form of the martial art that it was now more akin to wrestling.
In the final of the Olympics, Naidan became even more aggressive with his use of leg grabs and he repeatedly hip-blocked his opponent before using a leg grab to drag his Kazakh opposition to the floor. It’s an impressive spectacle but we can’t help but feel it has a lot in common with wrestling:
Did Leg Grabs Make Counterattacking Too Easy?
One interesting theory on why leg grabs aren’t coming back in Judo was offered by Joshua Hagen on The Art of Balance Dojo.
He opines that while attacking moves are successful in the modern Olympics roughly 11.1% of the time, counter attacks are successful at an incredible 30.3% of the time. That is, they are 3 times as likely to succeed as an attack.
This, we think, is something you would expect from a defensive martial art. It takes courage to attack in competition and there can be rewards for doing so, but a defensive sport should excel on the counterattack.
Joshua, however, sees this differently. He feels that if you want your Judo to be interesting it must, like any other sport, have more attacks and displays of bravery to pull the audience in. He posits that if you allowed leg grabs again, there would be a huge upswing in the success of counterattacks.
Would you want to watch Judo when 50% of all counterattacks were a successful strategy?
Now, while we respect Joshua’s position our problem with it is that there was no evidence that counterattacking was any more successful when leg grabs were allowed. We’d certainly have expected the International Judo Federation to have come forward if this was their reasoning for the leg grab ban.
It seems reasonable to us that a representative body is going to try and preserve the excitement in a sport and that kind of decision making would be easy to justify.
Instead, we still have crickets from them.
The Best Theory of Them All: It’s The IOC’s Fault
/u/d_rome says, “The real reason [for the ban on leg grabs] is that the IOC put pressure on the IJF to change. Simply put, competitive Judo looked like it became jacketed freestyle wrestling in terms of its approach. You need to understand the distinction I’m making here. Freestyle wrestlers were not dominating Judo. What happened often times is that judo competitors would grab the legs, get a minor score, and then be defensive once they achieved that score.
A lot of the matches were bow, fight for grip, dive for the legs, hope for a low score, and then be defensive for the rest of the match doing just enough to not get called for a shido. It was rare to see a single leg or a double leg score for ippon but back then it didn’t matter.
The players were coached to fight a certain way because the ippon doesn’t matter. Winning does. Judo had lost its identity and that was plain to see between 2004 – 2010.”
Yes, the International Olympic Committee already had wrestling as a sport in the Olympics and with a growing queue of other sports clamoring to be considered for space at the Olympiad, why would they continue to entertain a form of Judo which looked all too much like wrestling?
Many other commentators agree with this analysis and would go further in saying that Judo had simply lost its aesthetic appeal.
Wrestling was more entertaining than Judo with leg grabs but once you’d removed leg grabs from Judo; it became an entertaining and exciting sport with its own unique identity again.
You can see why the International Judo Federation might not want to own this change if the speculation is true. It would mean that the representative body was basically kowtowing to financial interests.
The Debate Continues
It’s worth noting, however, that no matter how good a theory is, without confirmation from the International Judo Federation, it’s still just a theory.
There are other lesser theories around (such as the idea that lightweight categories had become boring with leg grabs, though other weight classes were unaffected, but it was enough to demand a change) that might also be true.
We offer the three main theories and our own analysis that we feel the IOC story is probably true. You can make up your own mind based on the evidence we have presented.
Factually, the initial ban on leg grabs in Judo took place in 2010 and was further cemented in 2013. Nobody knows the precise reason for this ban though the Russians, the ease of counterattacking and the IOC have all been blamed for it to some extent.
One day, hopefully, the International Judo Federation will clear things up but until then the reason why leg grabs are banned in judo is still something of a mystery.