All those men and women roaming around the Doral Resort and Spa this week in what appear to be bathrobes are actually the best Masters Judo athletes in the world.
More than 800 competitors from 52 countries are in town for the Grand Masters World Judo Championship, a tournament for judokas aged 30 and older. It begins Thursday at 9a.m. and runs through Sunday afternoon.
The field includes 80 athletes from France, 57 from Venezuela, 60 from Brazil and Russia, and 150 from the United States.
Among the competitors is 71-year-old actor Bo Svenson, the 6-6 Swede who played Sheriff Buford Pusser in the 1970s Walking Tall films. According to USA Judo, Svenson, a black belt, has broken four ribs, torn both hamstrings, dislocated a knee cap and broken toes four times since returning to the judo mats in 2009.
“I can’t stay away from judo,” Svenson said. “I love dojo life. I have competed in many sports, and done quite well in some, but no sport has become as much a part of me as has judo.”
The actor earned his first-degree black belt in Japan in 1961, while stationed there with the U.S. Marines. Injuries forced him to quit the sport in 1965, but he picked it up again late in life.
Although many of the athletes competing this week are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, they are remarkably fit, lifelong dedicated judokas who can still handle a good throw-down.
“You watch these guys fight, and they don’t look their age,” said Jose Rodriguez, the executive director of USA Judo. “Fans are in for some epic fights because these guys have been black belts a long time, and they have a heck of a lot of experience. Don’t let their white hair fool you.”
South Florida has become a mecca for international judo competitions, partly because USA Judo’s executive office is in Miami, and partly because this area has a long tradition in the sport. There are 25 judo clubs in the area. Immigrants from Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil are passionate about judo, and have brought that passion to South Florida.
Among the local judokas competing this week are Clemente Ventura, 62; Luis Guardia, 80; Fidel Llera, 55; Ernesto Guevara, 44; and Abel Fernandez, 50.
“We have hosted several big events here, and there are more in the future,” Rodriguez said. “There are so many easy flights here from all over the world. The weather is perfect this time of year. And Doral is the perfect venue. These athletes get rooms overlooking a golf course, something they don’t get in most of the world. We put on a show for them, and they really enjoy it.”
Competition runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. The singles tournament runs through Saturday and a national team competition is held Sunday.