I do think it is completely unnecessary to bring politics onto the mats. Jiu-jitsu should provide escapism from the continued polarisation of our societies.
However, that may no longer be possible.
In the run-up to the Brazilian presidential election, a number of jiu-jitsu practitioners and elder statesmen of the art backed the far-right politician – now president-elect – Jair Bolsonaro. It is easy to criticise their outspoken endorsement of this abhorrent individual. One could certainly question their morals. Their support for this demagogue shows, at the very least, a willingness to normalise his hateful rhetoric. Nevertheless, they certainly have every right to share their political opinions.
With that being said, using one’s position within the jiu-jitsu community as a platform to espouse a political view is one thing, but, the act of awarding an ‘honorary’ black belt to an unworthy bigot is something else entirely. I say this in no uncertain terms: Robson Gracie awarding a black belt to Jair Bolsonaro was an affront to jiu-jitsu.
Unfortunately, I learned a long time ago that the universal principles of jiu-jitsu are highly negotiable. The respect, the trust and the vaunted notion of family can be jettisoned in an instant. Akin to all areas of life, hypocrisy runs rampant.
One thing that remained sacrosanct was the black belt. This was something that set BJJ apart from other martial arts. To receive a black belt was recognition that you possessed the requisite skill to perform the art at its highest level. It was incontrovertible proof of your determination, passion and work ethic; the accumulation of countless hours on the mats, across a span of years. The black belt was an illuminating symbol of your unique achievement.
Over the course of a decade, I have given everything to jiu-jitsu. I am fiercely proud of the brown belt I have earned during that time. It has been the most challenging undertaking of my life, yet, one that has rewarded me in innumerable ways. This one contemptible act cannot take that away, but I do feel it undermines it. Gifting anyone – let alone this man – the highest of all accolades undermines the entire system. It is truly ridiculous.
The jiu-jitsu community should not ignore this ignominious act. Even in the most charitable of readings, Robson Gracie made a huge error of judgement. This has set a terrible precedent. Despite his venerated status – one of BJJ’s few red belts – his decision needs to be critiqued by all those who have embraced the grind and earned a belt in jiu-jitsu.
I’m not just disappointed, I’m angry. We all should be.