Written by Nicolas Messner on 19. May 2024
Photographs by Nicolas Messner, Emanuele Di Feliciantonio, Tamara Kulumbegashvili
As editors of the International Judo Federation, we have a duty to hide behind the stories we tell. It must be said that it is not very difficult, as the adventures experienced by the great champions and judoka that we meet are often extraordinary. Away from what is customary, today I allow myself to step forward a little into the light, not to steal it from anyone and especially not from Bavuudorj Baasankhuu (MGL) who won the coveted title of world champion, but on the contrary to bring a little more light to the journey of this extraordinary athlete.

Bavuudorj Baasankhuu (centre) when she received her first judogi.

I first met Baasankhuu over ten years ago. It was in the depths of Mongolia, in a small town in the province of Khövsgöl called Mörön City. She was not much older than ten at the time and only indulged in judo from time to time. At that time, the city, which is located approximately 600km from the capital Ulaanbaatar, had fewer than 40,000 residents.

Although she had only recently discovered judo, she immediately loved the sport, but because her family was not very rich and because daily life was difficult, she could not train much and above all, she could not imagine that one day in May 2024 she would reach the top of the world.

It all began with a visit and an encounter. Our trip was organised by the Mongolian Judo Association, as part of the Judo for Children programme that the IJF has promoted throughout the world. When the first edition of the Ulaanbaatar Grand Prix had just taken place, Mashbat Bukhbat, then Secretary General of the Mongolian Judo Association, and I set off to discover Mongolia. Everything was facilitated by President Battulga Khaltmaa, who would soon be elected President of the Republic of Mongolia.

The dojo in Mörön back in the days. Bavuudorj Baasankhuu is second from the left.

Arriving in Mörön, we stopped at a school to meet some of the young, local judoka. “It was far from everything. There was no tatami, but a simple tarpaulin stretched over an uneven floor. Not all the judoka had a judogi and those who had one actually shared it with others. With the support of the IJF, we brought judogi for all the children. Tatami were also sent later.”

Among the group of children, there was a certain Bavuudorj Baasankhuu, whose cheeks were reddened in the fresh air of the Mongolian steppes. That day, I had the chance and the honour to give her, her very first judogi and it was especially on that day that she decided to get more into the practice of judo.

Final for the Abu Dhabi World Championships, -48 kg, Scutto (ITA) vs MGL Bavuudorj (MGL)

A few years later when she began appearing on the world circuit, she explained, “I was messing around with my friends in Mörön City and one day we tried judo instead of being all over the place. At that time I didn’t really know what it was but I tried and it was fun. Never would I have imagined going further. I didn’t know what a tatami was when I started, nor even a judogi. One day the coach told us that someone from abroad was coming and that he had a special present for us.

I will remember that day forever. It was my first judogi and it was snow white. That is the image that I have in mind. It was after receiving it that I started to consider that maybe judo was something I wanted to get involved with more seriously. A little later I went to the Junior National Championships. It was in the countryside and I was wearing my brand new judogi of course. I won my first bronze medal. Since then, judo has been a big part of my life.”

And the new World Champion is Bavuudorj Baasankhuu.

It is therefore this image, the one of a young girl who widened her eyes when receiving her first judogi from my hands, which came back to my mind today when I saw her raise her arms in victory and when I heard the national anthem of Mongolia playing. Suddenly I was back in Mörön, with the feeling that this day we contributed to something that was greater than us.

If every day the IJF develops programmes such as Judo for Children, Judo in Schools and Judo for Peace, it is to experience such a moment. Personally, I had nothing to do with Bavuudorj Baasankhuu’s performance today in Abu Dhabi. She was alone on the tatami and her result is the fruit of years of training and self-sacrifice with the Mongolian national team. All the credit goes to her without discussion. But I can’t help but think that if we hadn’t stopped at Mörön none of this would have happened.

Podium of the Abu Dhabi World Championships.

Mashbat Bukhbat, who after being an Olympic referee joined the IJF supervisor team, is categorical, “Judo for children is an important project for the future of many children, especially the ones living in poverty. I want to thank the IJF and the whole judo family for what they have been doing for so long. It is not easy to come from such a place like Mörön, but Baasankhuu is the true example that everything is possible. We can all be proud.”

Today was Bavuudorj Baasankhuu’s day. Her dream continues and projects her towards the Paris 2024 Games, even if in Abu Dhabi the reality has undoubtedly exceeded her wildest childhood dream. I wanted to give this testimony to underline the obligation we have to inspire the future generations. We did it in Mongolia and I am happy that something amazing happened because we did that. Everyday, thousands of coaches inspire their pupils. Let us celebrate Bavuudorj Baasankhuu and everyone of the people who one day had the chance to transmit something.

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