A group of 40 men of all ages wear a mix of white and blue judogis — the traditional judo uniform. Most are black belts.

Tokyo Olympics

France loves judo: How the French team won the Olympic gold

“I can’t explain why, but France has always excelled at judo,” said judo instructor Raymond Demoniere. With nearly 600,000 registered players — or judokas — across the country, Judo is one of France’s most popular sports.

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A group of 40 men of all ages wear a mix of white and blue judogis — the traditional judo uniform. Most are black belts.

Credit:

Rebecca Rosman/The World

The martial art of judo may have originated in Japan. 

But as the 2020 Olympic games have shown, there’s another country acting as a serious challenger on the Japanese team’s home turf: France.

France took home eight medals in judo at this year’s games, including a surprise gold for the first-ever mixed team event in Olympic history.

Related: Sports of Olympic past: Where are they now?

France’s success in judo may not be such a surprise after all.

A judo training center on the southern edge of Paris is packed, even though it’s the start of the summer holiday season.

A group of 40 men of all ages file in wearing a mix of white and blue judogis — the traditional judo uniform. Most are black belts.

“I can’t explain why, but France has always excelled at judo. ... But it’s great for us!”

Raymond Demoniere, 51, judo instructor

“I can’t explain why, but France has always excelled at judo,” said 51-year-old instructor Raymond Demoniere. “But it’s great for us!”

Raymond Demoniere, 51, is a judo instructor.

Raymond Demoniere, 51, is a judo instructor. 

Credit:

Rebecca Rosman/The World 

The men spread out onto the dojo, a rectangular mat that takes up most of the floor space, then pair up to begin their first exercise.

Their goal: Pin their opponent to the ground using precision and power.

“It’s sort of like dancing with somebody who is trying to kill you,” said Sebastian Smith, a journalist based in DC, who gave up a part of his Paris vacation to train here.

“I was here last week and I’m still aching from then because everybody here is at a higher level than me!” the brown belt said.

Related: The Olympic trampoline tradition: Remembering the man who taught the world to bounce 

A judo training center on the southern edge of Paris is packed, even though it’s the start of the summer holiday season. 

A judo training center on the southern edge of Paris is packed, even though it’s the start of the summer holiday season. 

Credit:

Rebecca Rosman/The World 

How judo became so popular in France may be somewhat of a mystery, but a lot of credit is given to French parents, who are attracted to the sport’s strict moral code that teaches eight values, including respect, modesty and self-control.

“You learn to respect your opponents,” said 34-year-old instructor Romain Pouisson. “You’re taught that before being your opponent, they’re your friend.”

Pouisson estimates 80% of French kids have at least dabbled in judo.

Related: Mermaid diving is making a splash in China

“I’m the first to advise parents to put their children in judo, but only until they’re 10 years old. ... After that, it’s better to let them choose,” Pouisson said.

Those who do choose to stick with it have some of the best coaches in the world.

A judo training center on the southern edge of Paris is packed, even though it’s the start of the summer holiday season. 
A judo training center on the southern edge of Paris is packed, even though it’s the start of the summer holiday season. 
Credit: Rebecca Rosman/The World
Pouisson sent two of his students to this year’s Summer Olympic Games.

One of them, judoka Sarah-Leonie Cysique, took home a silver medal in the women’s 57-kilograms category.

Cysique and her judo teammates, including 10-time world champion Teddy Riner, were given a hero’s welcome at the Place du Trocadéro on Monday.

Riner’s two medals — a bronze and a gold — officially made him the highest medal earner in judo history.

Back at the dojo in Paris, one young athlete is training to beat that record.

“I’m here eight or nine times a week. ... At first I didn’t really like the sport because I thought it was too demanding. ...I was kind of a princess."

Kaila Issoufi, 20, judo practioner

“I’m here eight or nine times a week,” said Kaila Issoufi, a 20-year-old who has been practicing judo for eight years now.

“At first I didn’t really like the sport because I thought it was too demanding. ... I was kind of a princess,” Issoufi admitted.

Kaila Issoufi, 21, practices judo.

Kaila Issoufi, 21, practices judo. 

Credit:

Rebecca Rosman/The World 

But that quickly changed, and Issoufi is now excelling in competitions around the world. She hopes to channel her success into a gold medal on her home turf, when Paris hosts the games in 2024. 

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