Edition No. 33. Winter, 2002. Today is
Pan American Judo Championships 2002

Santo Domingo: November 8-10, 2002
For athletes it may not mean very much but for officials and organisers the location of a tournament plays a big part in how much it captures your imagination. While the European Championships is undoubtedly the strongest continental competition followed probably by Asia's premier tournament, neither can offer the attending public or participants the kind of surroundings experienced in the Pan-American region. Neither can call on a Caribbean island to host a tournament.

Palm trees, white beaches, salsa, brilliant sunshine and every water-sport under that glorious red dot in the sky - it was a setting more befitting a holidays in paradise programme on the Travel Channel. Such a shame, then, to spoil it by hosting a judo tournament. And, intriguingly, the Pan- American Union almost seemed to agree. Mindful, as they were, that such a distraction (the competition) could jeopardise everyone's enjoyment of the facilities on offer they kindly made a few alterations to the programme. Out went the standard morning start times of nine or 10 am and instead, ludicrously, we began at 4pm the first day and 5pm the next.

Why on earth, I hear you ask…well, one helpful committee member clarified it for me. He explained that it would have been a shame to bring everyone to such a beautiful island, put tournament that finished at 2am on each of the first two days. And if that was not bad enough, the stadium was a good hour drive away from the hotel, which meant returning at 3am where no food was available for the tired and weary competitors. But I guess you can't always please everyone at a tournament (he says as he types feeling somewhat guilty sitting at his desk all bronzed and reminiscent.)

But if that sounds bad, it only got worse. Having had the entire individual competition rushed through in two days, despite a record entry that was not only counting as the first qualifying tournament for the 2004 Athens Olympics but also next year's Pan-American Games, and having only returned to the hotel at 3am on the second day, many of those fighters were back on the bus just six hours later. They had to head back to the stadium for a 10am start to the needed to host such events are at a premium in countries that are among some of the poorest in the world. So it makes economic sense to pile everything into the same event to save on flights, hotels and expenses.

It may be harsh but it is an economic reality that many countries cannot afford to keep travelling on to one tournament after another. Cuba, one of the world's strongest judo nations and the overwhelmingly dominant country at the Santo Domingo event, could not send a team to South Korea for the recent Junior World Championships. Partly for a lack of funds, but also partly because Cuba's historical ties to North Korea meant obtaining visas to travel would be difficult (in this context the diplomatic term for impossible). And many of the Central and South American countries cannot travel much to foreign tournaments - they cannot afford to. So to pile all their most important competitions into the same event will at least keep the accountants happy. I suppose the fighters just have to get used to it.

And speaking of the fighters, Cuba was magnificent. Not one Cuban woman lost a single fight in the individual categories as they swept to seven Gold medals including one from under 48kg debutant Suislay Echevarria. She even destroyed the Brazilian Taciana Lima who was so impressive at the recent Junior Worlds. The Cuban women did finally lose a single contest in the team event when the adventurous Anaisis Hernandez was countered for Ippon in the final against Brazil's Erika Moraes with a lovely Osoto-gaeshi. Cuba still won that final 6-1.

But for once it was not just eh Cuban women making the headlines. The men also won their team event and topped the medals table in the individuals with every fighter taking a medal. Two Gold, four Silber and two Bronze medals served up notice that the men are determined to snare some of the limelight off their illustrious female counterparts. Admittedly, though, the standartd in the men's divisions was considerably higher so their achievement could even be considered as impressive as the women's. USA's men also had a good tournament and they came home with seven medals, including two Gold. Chuck Jefferson at under 73kg looks to be a real find. He has an almost casual style but has wonderful Ashiwaza and took the title with a delightful Uchimata to beat the technically gifted Luis Camilo - older brother of Olympic Silver-medallist Tiago (who should be wowing the crowds at under 81kg at next year's Worlds).

Where Pan-America differs most significantly is in its insistence on holding under 44kg and under 55kg weight categories for the women and men respectively. South and Central Americans are apparently bred a little smaller than the rest of the world which is why they have these two extra divisions - although they were among the smallest (no pun intended) categories. But they do serve a purpose for the romanticists as Cuba does not enter fighters in non-Olympic weights. It gave the hosts the chance to win a wildly-celebrated Gold medal through Yarelis Suero at under 44kg. Incidentaly, she's tiny - a lot less than five feet tall - and conveniently doesn't know her height. The men's under 55kg also gave Venezuela the opportunity to win its first ever men's Gold medal through Javier Guedez. And it allowed for a wider spread of not just Gold medals but those of all colours for the two Silver medallists in those categories won their countries' only gongs. Nicaragua's Xochilt Arauz made the final of the under 44kg and Boris Lopez of Ecuador came second at under 55kg.

The stadium was of particular interest to me. Three years ago, in my only previous visit to the Pan-Ams, it was held in a massive basketball stadium in Montevideo, Uruguay, which looked like some kind of incinerator. It was a huge cylinder that was completely empty and the judo seemed lost. But the tiny stadium in Santo Domingo was perfect for its purpose. It was just big enough to hold the other competitors, coaches and the small number of 'ultras' passionately supporting the home fighters. There was even just enough room for the Puerto Rico softball team when they made a brief appearance to watch under 52kg fighter Elizabeth Melendez's comprehensive first round defeat. After that, they simply upped and left, probably for some more practice in the hope that their sport would gain an IOC reprieve allowing them to fulfil their dream of competing under the banner of the five Olympic rings in 2004.

A mention should also be made about Canada's marvellous Nicolas Gill. He was a dominant winner at under 100kg, despite having previously announced his retirement. He also confided in me that he was likely to continue to the next Games in Athens. He has had a wonderful season galvanised somewhat by the new prize money on offer in judo. He took the $6,000 first prize at the 2001 Grand Prix final and just added $10,000 to his kitty by winning Gold again at the recent Masters event in Bucharest, Romania. Add to that Commonwealth Gold and Pan-Ams Gold, and you have a man on a hot streak.That reminds me, the Dominican Republic was very hot as well - and beautiful. And just in case anyone is feeling a little envious, you probably won't be too impressed to hear that next year's tournament will be held in Brazil…


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Pan-American Judo Championships 2002



GUEDEZ, Javier (VEN)


TAKATA, Talyer (USA)










GILL, Nicolas (CAN)







SUERO, Yarelis DOM




SAVON, Amarilis (CUB)


LUPETEY, Yurisleidy (CUB)




VERANES, Sibelis (CUB)


LABORDE, Yurisel (CUB)




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