Rusty Kanokogi: A Brief History of Women in Judo

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While the modern sports world is a place of equality, it has not always been like that. While the history of women in sport dates back centuries and the 1900 Paris Olympic Games the first to accept female entry (Only 12 of the 1066 athletes were women) competing in the allowed feminine sports of Golf and Tennis.

With men still deciding in which sports women could compete in, it was restricted to upper-class sports of Horse Riding, Figure Skating, Archery, Skiing, Swimming, Diving, Golf and Tennis. Although women’s football came into popularity in the UK in 1917, this was largely due to the absence of men in WWI rather than embracing equality.

The 1921 Women’s Olympiad was the first all-female event, but there were decades of struggles for acceptance with often laws hindering opportunities. For example the first woman noted to have run a competitive marathon distance was in 1918, and yet in 1967 the Boston Marathon was still a men’s only event when Kathrine Switzer tried to run it against great protest. It was 1972 when she could successfully cross the finish line as a participant.

So for Judo, a sport not considered lady-like, how did we get where we are today?

It all began with Rusty Kanokogi

Rusty Kanokogi
Rusty Kanokogi

Rena Kanokogi, otherwise known by her nickname Rusty, had a difficult life growing up. Born on the 30th July 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of seven Rusty began to work because of her family situation. She ended up becoming the head of the Apaches, a gang of girls in Brooklyn. Her life was a fight, but not just any fight- a fight for survival.

Rusty began using her brother’s punching bag and weights to train. She was married by the mid-1950s and gave birth to a son, Chris, before getting a divorce. She began working as a switchboard operator.

Rusty had a revelation at age 19. A friend of hers showed her a judo technique that he learned, and she immediately became interested in Judo. She says Judo helped her develop self-control and would calm her down. Soon enough she began to train Judo at a local club and she became interested in competing, but was barred for being a woman.

She was nicknamed Rusty after a stray dog in her neighbourhood. Her mental and physical capacities kept her fighting despite the gender discrimination.

In 1959, Rusty taped down her breasts and cut her hair and competed for the very first time at the YMCA Judo Championship in New York. Officially, women weren’t barred from the competition. However, Rusty was the first woman to ever participate. In fact, the tournament application didn’t indicate gender. She was an alternate for her club’s team event- and when Rusty finally had to fight, she won her contest.

Her team went on to win the match. She was later pulled aside by the tournament organisers who asked her if she’s a woman. She nodded and they stripped her of her medal. In 2009, Rusty was re-awarded that same medal at a special ceremony nearly 50 years later.
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With a lack of opportunity for growth

Rusty ended up moving to Tokyo, Japan to train at the Kodokan in 1962. For many years, women could train at the Kodokan but they were separated from the men. It didn’t take long for Rusty to show that she was far stronger than gender discrimination- she was allowed to train with the men for the very first time.

She was promoted quickly to 2nd Dan by Jigoro Kano’s son, Risei Kano- who was president of the Kodokan at the time. Rusty quickly became known as “The Mother of Women’s Judo” as journalists and television cameras came to see her.

During her time at the Kodokan, Rusty met an athlete named Ryohei Kanokogi. They ended up marrying. Ryohei was on the Nichidai University team in Judo, and apart from Judo, he also held a black belt in Karate and Jodo. 

They married in 1964 and returned to New York, where she directed her first tournaments- the YMCA Junior Judo Championships. The following year, she also directed the Women’s Invitational Shiai in New York. The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) decided to let women fight amongst themselves, as long as they follow specific regulations for women. Large parts of the groundwork were eliminated and techniques were modified to limit body contact.

Rusty and other female athletes were fighting this decision, and they ended up winning their case. The AAU held their first national competition which allowed women to participate in 1974. Soon after, the European Judo Union organized an experimental competition in Italy. It was clearly a success as the following year, women competed at the European Championships. An evolution started happening, and soon enough women began competing from all-over the world. It was time for Women’s Judo to become global.

Rusty organized the first World Championships for women in Madison Square Garden- which she sponsored herself through the mortgage of her own home. The first female World Champion in Judo was Great Britain’s Jane Bridge, in the -48kg weight category.

jane bridge
Jane Bridge

Rusty was the driving force behind the inclusion of Women’s Judo at the Summer Olympic Games in 1988. She also became the coach for the first US Olympic Women’s Judo Team in Seoul, where she would coach her student to a medal- Margaret Castro. By the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games in 1992, Women’s Judo was fully integrated into the Olympic programme. 

Rusty Kanokogi made the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the IJF Hall of Fame. Rusty passed away on the 21st of November 2009, in New Year. Following in Rusty’s footsteps, New Zealander, Clare Hargrave was the first women to achieve her refereeing license in 1981. The first IJF seminar for female referees took place in Berlin in 1998, and another was held in Fukuoka in 2006 for female coaches.

A street in New York was named after Rusty, as she was hailed for her efforts to bring equality to Judo within the Olympic movement- and for being the “Mother of Women’s Judo”.