The Judo Story of Ben Campbell

Injury diminished proud moment for Senator Campbell

By Clay Latimer, Rocky Mountain News, August 5, 2004

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It should have been the ultimate high for Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

There he was, captain of the American judo team, making his big move in a second-round match at the 1964 Summer Olympics, just one victory shy of the medal round in Tokyo, where he had lived and trained for several years.

But in a sudden, depressing twist, Campbell's knee gave out, and after 1,500 matches and 15 years of sacrifice, his career did the same.

"I remember sitting on the edge of the mat, just in open tears," he said. "All the years, all the unbelievably torturous, rigorous training . . ."

It wasn't the only unexpected development for Campbell. During the Closing Ceremony, U.S. officials suddenly found themselves without a flag bearer, so they turned to Campbell, who has been carrying the flag for the American Olympics movement ever since.

As a state legislator, congressman and U.S. senator, Campbell frequently has worked on behalf of Olympics athletes, recently joining Senators John McCain, Arizona, and Ted Stevens, Alaska, in pressing for major changes in the scandal-ridden United States Olympic Committee.

Forty years after his Olympics debut, Campbell's influence will be evident at the Athens Games, which begin Aug. 13.

"Being in the Olympics was one of the highlights of my life," said the 71-year-old maverick, who also achieved prominence as an artist and Native American leader. "I didn't think of myself as a gifted athlete. But what I lacked in skill, I made up in heavy training."

Learning to fight

Being an Olympian must have seemed like an impossible dream to Campbell as a boy in Northern California.

His father, Albert, an alcoholic, couldn't hold a job and often disappeared for weeks. His mother, Mary, suffering from tuberculosis, required frequent hospitalization, leaving Ben free to hang out with gang members.

While working in a fruit-packing plant, Campbell picked a fight with a Japanese co-worker, who put him on his back with a judo move.

"I kept finding myself on the bottom, and I didn't like that," he said. "They invited me to come down to their judo club. In those days, Japanese kids were discriminated against very badly; it was right after World War II. I guess I felt a little bit of the same thing and identified with them.

"In those days, judo wasn't in the Olympics, there were no world championships, no intercollegiate and no high school championships - there was nothing. You were just in it because you enjoyed it."

Worn down from his home life, Campbell quit school and joined the Air Force, eventually landing in South Korea, where his passion for judo intensified.

Returning to the United States, he enrolled at San Jose State, which had a judo team, and threw himself into advanced competition. Over the years, he broke his nose nine times, had two teeth knocked out and received countless scarring blows.

"You bleed, there's no getting around it," he said. "I've got every kind of 'itis' now -bursitis, arthritis, tendinitis, calcium in my joints, all that stuff. I go to the gym all the time just to loosen up. I sometimes reflect: 'Did I do the right thing?'

"I think judo taught me dedication to purpose, to not give up and to fight and to not take a beating and all that stuff. But I knew a lot of terrific athletes who weren't training any harder than me, in golf and tennis and other sports, and they ended up making a full-time living and making a lot of money doing that sport."

Focused on judo

After moving to Tokyo in 1960 to train full time for the Olympics, Campbell enrolled at Meiji University as a special research student. To cover expenses, he taught English and worked as an extra in Japanese films.

"I'm not an actor, I didn't know anything about it," he said. "But they didn't care. They just needed a different face in the crowd.

"It was a fun time. There were a number of us over there, so we rented a communal house."

But Campbell's main focus was martial arts school.

"In those days, there was almost a spiritual component," he said. "They believed being good - not winning - was what you should strive for. The training was very hard, very brutal.

"As underclassmen, you had to dutifully do everything upperclassmen told you to do. You scrubbed the floors, cleaned the toilets, washed the upperclassmen's uniforms. You did a lot of things American athletes would never submit themselves to do.

"If you lost, you were required to shave your head. If you threw a guy down in training, someone would kick him in the head or stomach to make him try harder. If he got up and threw you down, they'd do the same to you - with no personal animosity. They'd carry a bamboo stick around, and if you weren't trying hard enough, you'd feel it across your back.

"When I was an upperclassman, I was expected to do that to lowerclassmen. But it made me very uncomfortable because I was an American.

"I didn't do it very hard; one time my instructor told me I was avoiding my responsibilities."

Campbell won six Pacific Coast titles, a gold medal at the 1963 Pan Am Games, an important Olympics tuneup, and three national championships.

"I'd come back to compete in our national championship,and then go back to train in Japan," he said.

Judo added to Games

Tokyo was supposed to be the first Asian Olympics host city in 1940, but Japan's invasion of China and World War II ended that.

Twenty-four years later, the country hoped to use the event to demonstrate the success of postwar reconstruction.

As host, Japan was allowed to choose an additional sport. Not surprisingly, it was judo. "The Japanese had such a strong hold on judo in those years, most people expected everyone else to lose," Campbell said.

Competition was held in four weight divisions, but the open division - Campbell's class - mattered most to the Japanese. The overwhelming favorite was Anton Geesink of the Netherlands, the eventual winner. Still, Campbell dreamed of a dramatic victory, even after injuring his knee at the Olympic trials, the same knee that eventually would betray him before the medal round.

He easily won his first match, but the odds caught up with him in the second, which he calls one of the worst moments of his life.

"We trained five hours a day, and to have it go out because of an injury . . . it just slipped away," he said. During the Closing Ceremony, Campbell was chatting with American swimmer Don Schollander, who had won four gold medals, more than any other athlete in Tokyo, when a U.S. official approached the pair.

"Don carried the flag into the Closing Ceremonies. I was standing by him, inside the stadium," Campbell said. "One of the officials said, 'Don, you're not going to be going with the rest of the team. You're flying home separately, and you need to leave now.'

"And so they asked me to carry it on the spur of the moment. I wasn't the official carrier, but it was an honor." Despite a limp, Campbell made it to the finish line this time.


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