Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Friday, 7 December 2007

Putin's black belt appeal

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin's macho image makes him popular among many Russian men, but how is the country's most famous judo player rated by women, who are after all the majority of the population?

Narine Zaimtsyan, Russian judo-player
Narine has been practising judo since the age of six

At Moscow's Shabolovka sports centre we are among Mr Putin's peers - black belts like the president himself, even if they are still at university.

As muscular men invade the floor for the male training session, the women and girls retreat, and Maria Proskura heads off to the tea bar.

We can talk about Mr Putin, yes, and judo for sure, but no politics, agreed? Who am I to argue with a member of the Russian national women's judo team?

The late president Boris Yeltsin's fondness for tennis boosted that sport in Russia, and Mr Putin has had a similar effect on judo, she argues.

But it is a shame, she says, that many people who come to the club do so because it is "the president's sport" and not because they understand judo.

'Taste for victory'

The sport in Russia goes back to 1914, when a certain Vasily Oshchepkov returned from Japan to set up a school in Vladivostok, according to the Russian National Judo Union.

Maria Proskura, Russian judo-player
Maria sees a new kind of man emerging in Russia

After the 1917 revolution, his pupils included secret policemen from the Cheka, a forerunner of Mr Putin's KGB. But judo was later pronounced an "alien" sport, and Oshchepkov himself was executed in 1937.

Revived in the 1960s, judo now counts 200,000 enthusiasts in Russia.

For Oxana Dredzheva, a brown belt who lately practises the sport for fitness only, judo gives a "taste for victory" and "helps people to lead on the mat and off the mat".

"Judo helps to make us disciplined in our lives and it does not allow us to be weak," Maria believes.

"It teaches you not only to be strong but also to concentrate."

That famous mean look of Vladimir Putin is actually only the president "concentrating", Oxana says.

A man like Putin

Indeed, many Russian women find him very handsome, she insists, herself included.

Oxana Dredzheva, brown belt
Oxana is also a press officer for the Russian judo union

He is not Maria's "type" but she happily agrees that for many of her fellow countrywomen, he is a model man.

There is even a pop song about the teetotal president, she laughs. The gist of the lyrics is:

"I want a strong man like Putin who doesn't drink, won't hurt me and won't run away."

Maria is optimistic that men of her generation are moving away from the stereotype of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, chauvinistic Russian male.

But still too many are put off by the prospect of a woman judo-player for a mate, she finds:

"We are very independent and we are very strong and men see our power and sometimes they don't want to have any business with us.

"They think that a woman should stay at home and do what they want."

Oil, gas and judo

What the women judo-players at Shabolovka want is a good career alongside the sporting triumphs.

First school dates back to 1914
Denounced as "alien" under Stalin and founding father shot
Revived in 1960s after it achieved Olympic status
Now practised by 200,000 Russians
Source: Russian National Judo Union

Narine Zaimtsyan, a black belt at 18 and member of the junior national team, is studying at Moscow's oil and gas university.

Oxana is in her fifth year at Moscow's sports university and Maria is studying to be a manager in the chemical industry.

"I don't want to be a stupid [athlete]!" she laughs.

And, of course, they can all look after themselves in the very basic sense.

"Moscow is very dangerous in the evenings, especially for a woman," says Narine.

As for Vladimir Putin, it seems he can rest easy on his mat whatever he does after his presidential term expires in the spring.

"I think Mr Putin is stronger than I!" says Maria. "I think it is better not to meet with [him] in the hall."

Your comments

Judo, jiu jitsu, karate all teach discipline, which is one of the most important qualities of a strong leader. As someone who practiced traditional japanese karate for over six years I salute all the russian men and women picking up martial arts.
Chris P Bacon, Seymour,Connecticut, USA

Absolutely, judo helps humans to remain humans. One has to be tough to a certain extent to survive in this world. That is exactly what judo prepares you for. It equips you with confidence and leadership skills. To that matter a few of U.K. politicians used to train down at Budokwai in London (it is not like the President Putin is the only big fan of judo). Furthermore, judo keeps youngsters off the streets. Brilliant sport and the way of life!
Anton, Moscow

Yes, I can vouch for the fact that Judo makes a woman strong and more independent. I have practised Judo since 1959 and am 6th Dan now, and 66 years old. When I was young there was no tournament for women, and I travelled to London to train at the famous Budkwai with Mr Charles Palmer as my teacher. The inner strength that Judo developed in me, has stood me in great stead through a rather turbulent life. There are more opportunities in Judo these days and that's going to benefit many many women round the world.
Yvonne Morrow, Brisbane Australia

Martial arts in general teach you discipline and humility, you will always come up against someone with more skill and experience, which teaches you to be careful, and not judge a book by its cover. They give you confidence, not just in walking down the street, but more importantly in talking to large groups of people or teaching others. For me it is the most valuable form of exercise.
JC, Luxembourg

I am not sure it teaches leadership as such, after all it's not a team sport, but it does help with confidence.
Duggie Parker, York, North Yorkshire

Absolutely! I'm been training judo for over 15 years now and it's amazing how seamlessly and unconsciously one can apply lessons from the mat in real life. Mental and physical toughness, strength, conditioning, concentration, ability to think fast under pressure, adapt and react swiftly to exploit weaknesses.. just to name several attributes. It's like playing chess and devising tactics under extreme physical exertion while your pulse is 180 bpm.
Marko, Zagreb, Croatia

I too admire Mr. Putin...he shows all the qualities of a true leader and I believe the judo training is a very good school to attain such qualities
ursula piaskowska, muskogee/ok/usa

I started Judo age 5 and did so for decades. Became a Police officer in Redlight district of Amsterdam. Always confident due to my training. Started business in Trinidad, Barbados and now in Panama...I believe that my Judo background has a lot to do with it. My sons too played Judo and I know it is good for controlling anger, increasing self confidence, health, strenght and outlook on life as it is the game of losing sometimes and winning.
martin ettenes, Las Cumbres, Rep. of Panama

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