Thursday, December 8, 2016

Rumours about IJF rule changes for 2017

People love to speculate. Look at all the "Star Wars" rumor sites that speculate on plot details for upcoming movies in the Star Wars saga. Some of the rumors prove to be remarkably accurate. Some less so. But whatever it is, people love rumors when it comes to a topic they are passionate about. And so it is with judo.

JudoInside's Facebook Page posting on rumors regarding the new IJF rules for 2017 got more "shares" than any other posting in the past (170 at the time of writing). 

Let's have a look at some of the points speculated about and try to infer the rationale for them as well as the potential consequences.

We all know that the IJF has had major changes to the rules before. The first rule changes happened around 2010 when there was a partial ban on leg grabs (among other things). After London 2012, there was a complete ban on leg grabs. Some have speculated that we might see the return of leg grabs after Rio 2016 but I never believed that's going to happen. And it doesn't look like it will in 2017, but there might be a relaxation of the harsh penalty related to it, and that's a good thing.

Of course there's always more to rule changes than just leg grabs, so let's go through each and every item speculated about. 

Rumor #1: Merging of Yuko and Waza-Ari

The rule changes of 2010 did away with the koka. It seems now they want to do away with the yuko -- or at least the score of yuko. Apparently the rule change will be that what was previously yuko will now be upgraded to waza-ari and it will now take four waza-aris to equal ippon (previously waza-ari-awasatte-ippon involved two waza-aris).

This is probably to simplify the scoring system to make it easier for non-judo people to understand. Judo's scoring system used to be super complex with koka and yuko (that doesn't add up to waza-ari) and waza-ari (two of which add up to ippon). Penalties like shido, chui and keikoku used to give points to the opponent. That combination of scores and penalties on the board could really be confusing for someone new to judo or a non-judoka trying to watch judo on TV. It was then simplified to just shido (no more chui or keikoku) and no more koka. Now, if you reduce the scoring system to just waza-aris and ippon, it will be even simpler than before (at least theoretically).

So, why four waza-aris instead of two? Perhaps by making it harder to score ippon through waza-ari accumulation, it would encourage judokas to go all out for one big ippon instead. Although shido and tactical play with smaller scores is part and parcel of the game as we know it, nobody wants to see the final of the World Championships or Olympic Games decided by small scores or worse still, by shidos (Teddy Riner, I hope you are reading this!). Ippon is the name of the game in judo.
Is it any wonder that the 101 Ippons series is consistently a best seller for Fighting Films? It's what the audience wants. It's what we all want.

Rumor #2: Shido Rule Changes

The first supposed shido rule change is that instead of four shidos equal hansoku-make, it will be just three shidos. The second supposed rule change is that shido(s) alone cannot decide the match. Shido is only the decision maker when the number of waza-aris are even.

The first rule change is easy enough to understand. The second one needs some interpretation. From what I understand, if Player A has a shido or two shidos on the board when the time runs out, Player B does not automatically win. It will go into Golden Score. However if Player A has a waza-ari and Player B has a waza-ari as well, and Player A has a shido on top of that, Player B will win.

If this rule is true, of course it doesn't mean that players can no longer play the shido game. While it's not possible to win on just one shido or two shidos, it would still be possible to win on three shidos because if you force your opponent to incur three shidos, he gets a hansoku-make and thus you win (essentially by shido).

What is not clear is what happens if both players go into Golden Score with no scores and no shidos and one of them gets a shido in Golden Score. Does that decide a match? Not sure. The rumors do not address that question. If a single shido in Golden Score does not end the match, then logically neither would two shidos. Does it mean a player needs to get three shidos in Golden Score before he loses? That would drag Golden Score quite a bit.
And that won't make for good television, so I doubt this would be the case. I think while one or two shidos alone cannot determine the outcome of a match in regular time, in Golden Score probably one shido will do it. Again, this is just speculation but it makes sense.

Rumor #3: Leg Grab Penalty Changes

Apparently, he first leg grab attack will get a shido. The second one a hansoku-make. While such a ruling would be new, the concept is certainly not new. Back in 2010, I recall hearing rumors that's how the IJF would introduce the rule against leg grab: shido for first infringement, hansoku-make for the second. But the IJF decided to "shock and awe" judokas into banishing leg grabs from their consciousness and to a large extent it has worked. In Rio 2016, there were fewer than 10 hansoku-makes and even then not all of them were for leg grabs. So, in six short years, the IJF has largely eliminated leg grabs from judokas' repertoire.

Perhaps because a whole generation top players has emerged without having practiced leg grabs, the IJF feels it is time to relax the rules a bit. Leg grabs are still forbidden -- no, there isn't going to be even a partial return for leg grabs, it is still completely forbidden -- but the penalty won't be so harsh. For the first infringement, it will be shido. And only if you repeat it will you get hansoku-make. 

Fair enough. I think everybody will like this change. Even judokas and coaches who feel the leg grab ban has been good for judo (and many actually do feel that way), typically say hansoku-make straight away is too harsh a penalty. So, this will be a most welcome new rule.

Rumor #4: Waza-ari for 10-Second Hold-Down
This makes sense if Rumor #1 is true and what was yuko will now become waza-ari. Under current rules a 10-second hold-down is given yuko. So, under the new rules, it logically should be given waza-ari. The question is what will it take for ippon, 15 seconds or will it still be 20 seconds? If what they want to do is to improve the speed of the matches, it makes sense that they will cut it down to 15 seconds. For those who might complain 15 seconds is too short, consider that in wrestling, a pin is for two seconds only.

Rumor #5: Men's Matches Drop to Four Minutes

Currently, women's matches are four minutes while men are five minutes long. This discrepancy has been criticized as sexist. Perhaps by making men's matches the same length as women's matches is designed to address that criticism.

It's true that there was a time in the 80s and early 90s when women's judo was generally very scrappy and really not fun to watch (yes, there were excellent technicians like Karen Briggs and Ryoko Tani but they were more the exception than the rule) but today's female judokas can execute big throws and nifty newaza moves just as well as the men or even better (this is particularly evident in newaza). There is no reason why men's matches should be longer than women's.

Having shorter matches will also move the game along quicker which is probably a good thing. Players will feel a sense of urgency to score much quicker. More scores make for more interesting judo to watch.

Assuming all of the above is true, will it be better for judo? For the television audience, I should think so. Anything that moves the matches along more quickly and encourages more throws and less tactical play will make for better TV viewing. And like it or not, being TV-friendly is important for the growth of the sport. 

Will it kill off tactical play? It will probably reduce it but tactical play can still be employed as long as a certain number of shidos can result in hansoku-make. However, making it so that one or two shidos alone is insufficient for a win will help to reduce shido play because unless you are confident you can force your opponent to incur three shidos, you won't be able to win by shido play alone. You have to score to win. 

The combination of three shidos for hansoku-make and the reduction of match time to four minutes (for men) will probably result in more throws. Imagine a player who is down by two shidos and it's fast approaching the four minute mark. That player will probably throw caution to the wind and go all out for a waza-ari score. When he goes for broke, one of two things will usually happen. He will either get that score or he will get countered for a score. Either way, the match will be won by a score rather than a shido. And that is better.

When will we know?
At the time of writing, all of these rumors are just that -- rumors, although it must be said they are published rumors. Still, there's no way of verifying any of the speculations. However, it's highly likely that Rumor #3 about leg grabs getting shido for the first infringement and hansoku-make for the second one, is true. During a Twitter Q&A, IJF President Marius Vizer indicated that leg grabs will no longer merit a straight hansoku-make.

In that Q&A, Vizer said the rules will be published by the end of December and that they will be discussed in detail at the
IJF Coach and Referee Seminar in Baku all  from January 5 to 8, 2017. Apparently the new rules will be applied for the first time at the African Open from January 14 to 15, 2017.

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