15:59 06 mai

« A fantastic team »

Interview of Ezio Gamba

The Mens’ team coach,  Ezio Gamba , from Italy, said it in 2009 : « only the Olympics matter ». With 5 medals, 3 of which were Olympic titles out of the 7 judokas in the competition : the Russian campaign in London was a success. A great success, and there is  probably more to come…

Story of an international coach
Gamba, Russia, Moscow -  it looks like anything but luck when you look back on the career of the man who made Russia the best judo nation in the world during the London Olympics. July 1980 : the judoka from Brescia, runner up in the previous world championships in Paris, beaten by the Japonese Katsuki, wins the final of the -71kg  against Neil Adams after having previously defeated France’s Christian Dyot. He became the first Italian Olympic champion in judo history. Four years later finds him in the LA olympic final, but losing against the Korean, Ahn  after once again beating Serge Dyot and loosing another world championship final against Nakanishi in 1983 … in Moscow.
European champion in Rostock in 1982 at the expense of the German Lehman after losing a first final in 1979 against his old enemy Neil Adams and before one lost to France’s  Richard Meilillo in Paris 1983. The Italian is seen as a great technician, a seoi-nage specialist and « one of the strongest man in the world on the mat » according to the Brazilian master of ne-waza, Flavio Canto.
Another medal at the European Championships of 1986 (he lost against Hajtos), winner of the Meditteranean games the following year he ended his career with his third Olympics Games in Seoul in 1988.  Aged 30 years, he was beaten in the second round of the  88 Olympics by Spaniard Quino Ruiz, the foot sweep specialist.
Then what ? He became a high-level coach. He spent twelve years helping the Italian judo and training the Squadra Azzurra from 1996 until 2004.
A great time for the Italian team, they win 8 Olympic medals including Guiseppe Maddaloni’s -73kg title in 2000 in Sydney. The Gamba trade-mark.
It is difficult, however, to be a prophet in one's own country, so the Italian wizard turned to  Maghreb to establish the African Olympic center in Algiers just before the Beijing Games. Amar Benikhlef and Soraya Haddad returned to Algeria with two medals as did the Egyptian Mesbah.
The Russian Federation who had Sergei Tabakov as a leader got their hands on him in 2008 to coach the mens’ team. He infuses his ne-waza knowledge and establishes himself thanks to his charisma. « He did nothing exceptional, but he was a superb technician, who knew how to prepare for an uchi mata, he knew how to manage, precisely, physical preparation in simple, but perfectly controlled, steps with clear vision of the final objectives and the intermediate stages. » explained other coaches when asked about his training methods.
Gamba the multilinguist he now gives interviews in Russian -  who is about to turn 53, told us : « the three most important elements : open-minded athletes, a staff available 24/24h, are the strength of the key policies that allow him to work calmly ». He also adds « it is a great responsibility but also a great chance. » Ezio Gamba or the reason for the success of the Russian team in London.

Making of - A powerful and rare interview with the Italian tzar
Nice, friendly with everyone and on every mat, it is hard to find someone more approachable than Ezio Gamba, brilliant ex-champion who has became a respected coach always precise in his  analysis. The effervescent Italian, in spite of his colorful Bosco training suit, the same as the rest of the team- no choice because of the sponsor- was very reserved during the Olympics. Never on the chair, avoiding interviews, however, he promised he would take time to give a long interview after the competition. As Teddy Riner had just beaten Alexander Mikhaylin in the heavy weights final. Understandable. The day before, Vladimir Putin had kissed on the lips the hero of the day. Not Khaybulaev, but the « mystery man », the great transformer of Russian judo. A message left on his voicemail, another one, a couple of days without any news from him and then, early on this Sunday morning, just before the French team was about to get on the Eurostar to go back to France, the phone rang. « Sorry, didn’t forget about you but I was just so busy with other interviews. I’m available now, see you in thirty minutes then ? » Two hours later, even though he kept a few secrets from us, Ezio Gamba told us that « it was a pleasure, I know you’ve been following the team since 2009. I enjoyed sharing this with you. » He had promised, hadn’t he ? Class and professional.

(c)L'Esprit du Judo

Ezio, you banked a lot on these London Olympics, all Russia included Putin were waiting for it…
Yes, it’s the best result in Olympic history for Russian judo ? We said it, we did it, it’s fantastic !

Not that easy was it ?
There are two sides to this medal : athletes and organisation. It was easy with the athletes, they are all healthy, they do things without any regrets, no malice. There was not any plotting or anything like that in the group. It’s an incredible experience to be with them. I lived something amazing in Italy, then in Africa four years ago when we launched the Olympic center in Algiers, but this is just crazy. I’ve been able to share each of their lives, those who were at the Olympics but also the others. I went to their homes, met their first coaches and their grand-parents. I’ve organised training courses in Siberia, Sotchi, Moscow and in the hometowns of the team members. For example we went to Dagestan, it had never been done before because it’s meant to be very dangerous. We stayed there for a week and it was great ! It was two months before the Olympics and just after the European Championships. There was  9 of us, of course we did a lot of working out but we all learned to know each other. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want one training centre, I wanted to travel and go where some of the team members grew up.

A lot of them come from Dagestan, why’s that ?
It’s a bit of a coincidence, but what I can say is that they are very hard working, stong-minded and their wrestling history goes far back, whether it’s traditional wrestling, sambo or judo. Technically they are very open and relaxed. We managed to work very well with these basics. We didn’t change their judo but tried to make the best out of their fighting system.

Politically, it wasn’t too complicated ?
The person in charge chose me in 2008. At that time I told them how it would work and haven’t changed anything. Never did and never will change a thing. During the 2010 European Championships in Vienna, Putin wanted to come to the individual competition, but, as strategy, I decided not to put in the best fighters, They only went in the team competition. I tried to explain that to them but they found it hard to accept ! From the first till the last training day for the Olympics I did whatever I wanted. To begin with, they asked for a report every 6 months. I answered « No, I need to put my team together, don’t have time to train you too » After the World Championships they asked for another progress report. I said I just wanted to be judged on the Olympics. I had been hired for that and nothing else.  I was supported, and protected, by important politicians : : Sergei Soloveychik, vice-president of the  Federation et President of the l’EUJ helped me and gave me important connections, Vasily Anisimov was availiable and efficient in resolving some situations when necessary. When a member of the sports ministry tried to make us waste time, I protested and managed to get what I wanted to.

Vladmir Putin’s presence and interest for judo (he spent three days at the last E-C and also in London), is it not too hard to handle ?
We were never really close to each other, but he has been at 6 of our training sessions since 2009, Dmitri Medvedev came once too. He came to chat and train with us. We also ate a couple of times with him. He is passionate about training and asked very specific questions. He gave me all his support. I had told him about my project in 2009 : to bring back at least 4 medals from the London Olympics. A year and half ago he asked me « what do you think about the team, will it be able to do something during the Olympics ? » I said in front of the whole group that itw as going to be amazing, something no one ever saw. From that moment there were only two possible choices ! Either they thought I was crazy or very motivated because of my confidence. I even told them, that if we didn’t bring at least 4 medals I would throw away my black belt, burn my training programme and stop judo

Really ?
Of course ! The only thing I didn’t commit to was the colour of the medals. We couldn’t predict anything. There was going to be metal around their necks but I didn’t know which colour it would be. Three titles (he stops)… it’s unbelievable. I know my training system, I won gold with Guiseppe Maddaloni in -73kg, three bronze medals and three 5th places with Italy in Sidney, but I needed to try it with other fighters than Italian ones, in another country with a different background… and with a big potential. Three months before the Olympics, I thought we would be able to bring back gold on the first, on the second and sixth day of the competition, with Galstyan in -60kg, Mogushkov in -66kg and Khaybulaev in -100kg. I got it wrong for the second day but the main result is wonderful. Three medals would have been a bit disappointing but five ? A bit crazy no ? I knew when I started that we could reach this goal.

What resources were you given ?
I’m not going to tell you how much exactly, but when I arrived I suggested two plans : one with 20 athletes, me and a coach, and the other with 50 athletes and the staff they had. They chose the second option and never told me I couldn’t do it. What I mean is that behind the team you know, there are two others training at their own rythm. For example, Lavrentiev (-60kg) won the Rio Grand Slam just before the Olympics. And he is not the only one.

You always said « our rendezvous is the Olympics ». But there has been intermediary stages, where we expected a more competitive team than they actually were. How did you measure the groups’ progress and that of each fighter during those last months ?
The analysis I would make is : how many are going to fight for a medal during the important meetings such as the World Championships and the Olympics ? In 2009 there were 4 and they brought back 3 medals. In 2010 they were 6 for 3 medals, in 2011 in Paris there were 8 for 3 medals, again. It’s true there were only three medals but on my progress barometer, the goal was to make the athletes as competitive as possible, and this showed with their position on the ranking list. You don’t become number one by luck alone ! When you have the best, you can win Olympic and world medals. That’s the main goal. For a couple of months we have had fighters in the  first 5 places in every category. The best example of this progression is Tagir (Khaybulaev). He came into the team later because of injuries, but he progressed a lot during the last months and managed to win the world and Olympic titles. Let’s be clear on this : with the calendar we have, we can’t train to win the Master and the Grand Slam and the European Championships the same year as the Olympics. If you do that, you’re done for ! We never looked to be in final shape before London. We never actually worked on winning a specific competition. The goal was the Olympics, the rest was only workout.

Russia dominated the last European Championships…with a second team. Why and how ?
That was the plan (laughs). We made public who would and wouldn’t go to London in January. You can’t announce that just a couple of weeks before such an important competition. By anouncing it 6 months before, you can get the best out of training.

That can also provoke a bit of stress…
No, if you tell them they are very strong and that they will bring back a continental title, even if they are not number one. European Champion is a big deal. Samoylovich, Gadanov and the others accepted not to be on the team, they are smart and know they have improved. Same with the third team, the Kodzokovs, Khan, Magomedov… I believe that although an athlete can be mad at you for a moment, the most important thing is to be straight with him. You must be able to tell them that sort of news, to decide and find the right words. But that’s my job isn’t it ?

Not once we saw you on the chair in London, you did on purpose didn’t you ?
What would I have done there ? The job is supposed to be done before the tournament. When it starts, you can always shout and wave your arms about from the  chair,but  if the judoka is not ready, it won’t make any difference. And you’re not doing him a favour by making him look like a dependant person. Sportsmen have to be men (or women…laughter). With the other coaches on the staff, we had meetings every single evening for the 300 days we spent together. Actually we’re the team who stays the most together, we see each other more often than our wives and children ! When the competition starts, calm and trust are the most important things for the athletes. I said to the coaches : «  you have to be calm and relaxed, we’ve already done everything we could. It’s already written. »

How did you unite the trainers’ team ?
Good that you raise this, without them it would just not be possible. There are five of them Vitaly Makarov, Khasanbi Taov, Dmitry Morozov, Konstantin Filosofenko and Sergei Kosmynin. They are young, are motivated, I told them in the direction I wanted to go and they agreed with my plan. I made my choice on something very specific : technical ambition.

What did Vitali Makarov (world champion and vice olympic champion), for example, provide, knowing he followed the progress of four fighters during this championship ?
He is a great expert, but he is just a teammate. He’s not more valuable than another.

How did you choose the coaches ?
The main qualities of the staff, are that they are young, they all have been champions and they are winners. I played a lot on these affinities during the first internship in 2009 where I had invited all the previous Russian medalists.
I made my judgement on those who still practised, how precise and challenging they were. It was very important to have « active » trainers, I also spotted those who were respected by the sportsmen. I also wanted to create a personal relationship with each of them, and asked them to be totally available. I wanted to be sure that their dream was to see the team become the best in the world. After a month I knew they wanted what I wanted and understood my goal. I could see they trusted me. I asked them to commit themselves like they never had before. They had to be a 100% available, with 3 days off a month. Not more. There was only one goal : success altogether. I Told them to forget about the rest. No one complained or tried to bargain. No one ever asked for more days off.

What was the main work you had do to when taking the job ?
Identify each one’s weaknesses. Russian judo was there before me. Makarov, Tmenov, Pershin, Mikhaylin… all very strong fighters. None of them had the right ingredients to succeed. Because of that, Russia didn’t bring any medals back from Beijing. There was a problem with the physical state they were in, but a tactical one too. So we had to bring in a lot of technique, in defence but also in attack. We did a lot of work on the ne-waza too. All that was put in a long planning session : the basis was joint training to which we added individualism. In the end we had to deal with 5 or 6 different training programmes every day so that the team could progress, but not only this one, but also the second, the third, the fourth and even the fifth team ! All that can drive you crazy ! I had everything planned. For the Olympics the planning was ready a year before the world championships in Paris.

(c)L'Esprit du Judo

The physical workout is important too ?
I learned everything I know from Victoriano Romanacci in Italy between 97 and 2004 : a specific physical training based on power and stamina, the main exercisises for this kind of training. I put in place the circuits. What is the priciple ? As with technique : identify strengths and weaknesses, limits and strong points…

Where did you learn this method ?
From my youth. From the strictness of my Japanese coach, how my parents brought me up and from the different experiences I acquired over the years. When I arrived in Russia it was the same as when I started in Italy. To own a Ferrari, a judo formula 1 you have to have to find for yourself how to tune it. Working on the mental side becomes easier when you spend a lot of time with the others. I’m not going to tell you  all my secrets now, I plan on training for a long time !

What is the secret of this amazing week in London ?
(He laughs) You really want me to tell you about everything ! There are simple but essential things you have to recognise. First of all these athletes are humble, brave, open-minded. To make it simple I would say they are genuine and brilliant. I had to make them smart too. It is out of the question to give too much power to trainers who make athletes into idiots. Each has its role. Smart and calm trainers make smart and calm fighters. Everyone has their place

We imagine that yours is very important in Russian Judo ?
I’m not the best coach in the world, the team is. I didn’t give a lot of interviews after the competitions. I’m not the Olympic champion, Galstyan, Isaev, Khaybulaev are. They are the one who should answer questions, if I answer your questions it is because we know each other and that we are going to talk about judo. I know you understood very quickly what it was all about, and I’m quite thrilled to talk about it with you.

After Arsen Galstyan’s title on the first day, we expected a lot from Mogushkov. He lost in the first round. Were you worried about what would happen next ?
Mogushkov (beaten in the first round by the Azeri Karimov) had a lot of pressure on him from the whole team. After the first day, everyone was saying : « Come on, it’s your turn to become an Olympic champion ». He was too young to cope with it. After that, I  blocked every contact. No one could get in touch with the team. I calmed the fighters down, telling them they had worked hard and they just needed to fight. Pressure is hard. I believe it did a lot of damage in Japan. We were ready.

The others were too ?
Yes, but they were ready for the Grand Slams, the world championships…We weren’t, only the OG mattered. We hadn’t prepared for anything else.

Did you know your team was the strongest when you arrived in London ?
Yes, I knew their technical qualities and two weeks before going to London they did muscular strength tests. They all beat their own records. We did it on purpose so that they knew they were really ready.
We also planned that the Slam would be an important stage. Galstyan won against Sobirov…those are important messages. Even what takes place during the training sessions is important.

How would you analyse Japan’s counter-performance during the Olympics ?
Considering their potential they didn’t do the job. I can see two important problems that caused all that. First of all the general atmosphere in Japan. Judo is not « in » anymore and does not attract the same following as  it used too. How would you explain differently that Ishii went into freefight like an idiot ? They are in an old fashioned pattern that does not work anymore, judo is quite modern now. And secondly the training : the supervision was a little bit hard on the athletes.

It is said that the three Olympic champions would get 1 million euros each. What about the coaches ?
It’s normal, they also got an Audi each from Putin. For the staff they talked about giving them 300 000 each for every gold medal, which is very good. I don’t think about it. I don’t change, I’ve had the same wife for 35 years, you know ! (laughs) I should get an offer soon, I think. At that moment I’ll say whether it’s too much or not. Well, actually I won’t say anything if it’s too much ! (laughs)

After 4 years, how do you feel ?
I’m exhausted ! I never look back, that’s how I work. When I go to bed I’m knackered, but I wake up stronger every morning.

What next ?
Doing even better ! Developing is the next stage. It’s going to be awesome !

You’re going to become Prime Minister then ?
No, I’m not interested in politics. I’m a judo trainer, and there is still a lot to do. We still don’t know what our potential is. We have about 40 very strong fighters, maybe 60 at a high level. I need some holiday after all the celebrations in Russia and then three weeks to plan the 2016 Olympics.

Another 4 years. It is said that you could take the women’s team too ?
We’re talking about it… I’ll tell you : I’ll be in charge of the women’s team too. I’ll do better and differently. They didn’t do anything in London, but they have a great potential.

Tell us more about the fighters. Isaev for example. He was very emotional  after his title…
Yes, he is a really nice guy. When I saw him in Paris and in Germany in 2009 I told Sergei Soloveychik that he could be champion in London. After three months of training with him, I knew who he was. He has extraordinary capacities. He’s not Maddaloni but he’s getting close, and I know it’s huge what I’m saying. Guiseppe has a lot of caracter, power and abnormal stamina. Isaev has that but with a bit of fantasy. I told him not to go the European Championships in Chelyabinsk. He wanted to because it was his home town. He finished 7th and told me that I was right. He had difficulties winning but we told him that he would be strong in London. Putting on weight was a little hard, but he’ll be stronger soon. It was the same with Tagir who won the Olympics at 97 kg

Khaybulaev ?
He’s the team captain. He’s been injured a lot. Broke a couple of fingers, had issues with his knees. Luckily he didn’t hurt himself during the months before going to London. He is sturdy and skilled. A technical leader with a natural authority. I could fight with only one hand and not take advantage of an injured opponent. Against Tuvshinbayar during the final he was afraid to attack : the Mongol had an injured knee. I wanted an ippon but not on his weak knee. He is a good guy.

How do you see the others ?
On the one hand, you have Galstyan’s genius and fantasy that makes him the best -60kg in the world. Mogushkov, who doesn’t have Galstyan genius but is an incerdible hard worker and is the most powerful in his category. Nifontov who is a real champion, he hates losing and is able to score  ippon on anybody in the last ten seconds of a fight. He had a really bad quadriceps injury two years ago. He had an operation, it lasted 4 months, and then had personal problems, that’s the reason he didn’t do much for a while. Concerning Denisov (-90kg) his uchi-mata and his ko-soto-gari are excellent. He did not reveal himself at 100%, made some mistakes in his last fight during the Olympics after outclassing Iliadis.

And Mikhaylin ?
He went to the European Championships because he needed to test himself,  the heavyweights is a category apart. He didn’t train as much as the others because he had knee problems, had appendicitis but was really involved. He is a monument in judo, worldwise and in our history.
He is 32 years old, three times world champion, was really frustrated during two Olympic Games because Tmenov was ahead of him. He was injured a lot but is still there. At only 114kg he is a bit light to cope physically but he can still put on weight. I would love to see Mikhaylin with another 10kg and the strength that goes with it. He’ll always be 10kg less than Riner, but that could change things. I would love to see what happens.

(c)L'Esprit du Judo / The Russian Team

Do you think he’s going to go on ?
Yes, I hope so. Sasha is unique. Never met an athlete who had that will to progress. A week before the Olympics he was still trying to improve details. He still has the desire of an 18 year old. That can make the difference in the next years.

Which fighters impressed you in London ?
There are not a lot of them. I would say the -66kg Georgian. He’s just arrived, confident. He could be the new Iliadis.

Iliadis lost against Denisov, had you something special ready ?
When Iliadis is in the call room, he already lost in his mind. He has less points of reference than he used too. Denisov was very strong when they met in the last training session. Iliadis is unique, one of the biggest champions of judo history. He is a self made man.

What about the French team ?
I think that Jean-Pierre Gibert had a very good influence on the boys. Ugo Legrand is the best French judoka. Riner is just fantastic : five times world champion is quite amazing. It’s not that I don’t like Riner, but Legrand is better technically, standing and on the mat. He has a very strong kumikata, can’t wait to see him during the next Olympics. I also like Milous, he is interesting, and Schmitt too, a good and powerful judoka, but still a little bit below. I really like Legrand’s mind and fighting system.

And the girls ?
France can be proud, but there wasn’t a strong Russian team (laughs) ! They made the most out of it, but it’s not going to last !

By Olivier Remy / Translation : Juliane Damon-Scowcroft

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