A Judo Spectator's Guide - Just in Time for the Olympics!

So you've come across the Judo footage, but you're having a hard time following what's happening?  This is the place for you.

There are a ton of rules and nuances (largely inane) in Judo, so think of this as a high-level guide.  If you see something that doesn't fit with this guide, it probably has to do with one of those nuances.  I'm not a rules expert, but if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment and I will answer as best I can.

How do you score?
There are 4 ways to score in Judo:

  • You throw your opponent
  • You pin your opponent mostly on their back
  • You make your opponent submit (typically by tapping), due to either arm-bar, or strangulation
  • Your opponent accumulates penalties
And there are 3 levels of scoring:
  • Ippon:  Instant win - the ref will hold one arm straight over his head.  You get this for:
    1. Throwing your opponent with power and control, usually on their back
    2. Pinning your opponent largely on their back for 25 seconds
    3. Making your opponent submit, either due to arm-bar or choke
    4. Your opponent accumulating too many penalties, or getting a severe penalty
  • Waza Ari:  Get 2 of these, and you win - the ref will hold his arm straight out to the side.  You get a Waza Ari when the throw isn't quite as good, the pin is at least 20 seconds, or the opponent accumulates just 3 penalties.
  • Yuko:  Think of this as a tie-breaker point; no number of Yukos is as good as a single Waza Ari - the ref will hold his arm at a downward angle to the side.  The throws will typically land the opponent on their side instead of their back, the hold-downs are between 15-20 seconds, and only 2 penalties are needed for a Yuko.
And it's important to understand what isn't a score:
  • A throw that lands the opponent belly-down, on their butt, or their head, or anything other than their side or their back
  • A pin that doesn't last at least 15 seconds, or where the person being pinned has their legs wrapped around the opponent's body or leg (guard or half-guard)
  • You also get no credit for passing guard, taking their back, sweeping, or anything else on the ground that isn't a pin

How do you win?
  • Get an Ippon
  • Get 2 Waza Aris
  • Your opponent gets 4 minor or 1 severe penalty
  • You have a greater score than your opponent at the end of regulation time
  • Your opponent withdraws or can't continue
  • Get any score during the "golden score" period (see below)
  • The judges pick you as the winner if time runs out in the "golden score" period

What exactly is "Golden Score"?
"Golden Score" is basically overtime for Judo. If there is no winner at the end of regulation time (5 minutes for men, 4 for women), then it goes into a 3 minute sudden death, where any score for any reason wins.

Soooo... what's with the penalties?  - or, What's with those yellow squares?
There are way too many things that get you penalized in Judo.  I won't go over them here, but the most common two that you will see are going too long without attacking (the ref rolls his arms like a "travelling" gesture in basketball), or for making garbage attacks that are generally aimed at killing time or trying to get to the ground (the ref makes a downward tugging motion with his arms).
Whatever the penalty, the ref will stop the action, make some gesture (like one of the two mentioned above) at one of the contestants, and then point at that contestant.
  • When one contestant is penalized, the first one will be a warning (unless it's a severe penalty, in which case she'll just get thrown out), and you'll see a yellow box show up next to their name on-screen in NBC's coverage (actually, it'll be next to a white or blue box, which just denotes what color gi the contestant is wearing). 
  • The second penalty (two yellow boxes) awards a Yuko. 
  • Things get a little weird at the third penalty:  the Yuko is removed, and a Waza Ari is added to the opponent's score, and three yellow boxes are shown.  And if the opponent already had a Waza Ari, then the match is over (2 Waza Aris = win).
  • The fourth penalty removes the Waza Ari, and the contestant is disqualified.

How do you medal?  - or, What's with the two bronze medals?  - or, What the heck is "Repechage"?
Repechage is the French word for loser's bracket. Not really, but you can think of it that way. Basically, what happens is this: repechage begins with two matches consisting of the four losers from the quarterfinal round. The winners of each match will go on play a loser from one of the two semifinal matches. The two winners of these matches, then, are awarded a bronze medal and their day is done. The winners of the semifinals compete in the finals (of course): the winner gets gold and loser gets silver.

Hopefully this will be helpful.