January has the big college bowl games, and March has its madness. But when it comes to sports, February is no slouch either. Since 2004, the Super Bowl’s been a February game. There’s the NBA All-Star weekend. Every four years, there’s even a February Olympics. There’s no Winter Olympics this year to brighten your February, so we’ve asked Jeopardy! mega-champ Ken Jennings to show off his jock side and throw a flag on some deeply cherished sports facts you thought you knew. Nobody takes more pride than sports fans in knowing their stuff—but as we’ll see, they’re not always right.
Sports Myth #3: Black Is the Highest Belt in Martial Arts.
Despite what you feel you’ve learned from Bruce Lee movies, the belt system used to rank martial arts skill isn’t an ancient tradition. The first martial art belts were awarded in 1886 by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Japanese primary schools had long used ribbons to indicate skill levels in contests from go to swimming, and Kano adapted this idea when he was devising the dan/kyu ranking system (kyu are the lower grades, dan the higher ones) still used in many forms of martial arts today.
But Kano’s early belts were only white, black, and red. Today’s rainbow of belts actually originated in the West. In the 1920s and 1930s, a judoka named Mikonosuke Kawaishi spread judo worldwide by opening schools in the U.S., England, and Paris, and the colored-belt system was one of the innovations he developed to popularize the sport for Western audiences. But in Kawaishi’s system as well as Kano’s, the top belts were not black. Most students who achieved dan status wore black belts, but the sixth, seventh, and eighth dan masters were given red-and-white striped belts, and graduated to red belts if they reached ninth or tenth dan. There are no records of any particular color for the eleventh dan belt, and the twelfth—reserved for Kano himself—was white.
Karate grandmasters also wear red belts; in other martial arts, like taekwondo, the black belt is typically the highest belt awarded. But Westerners often don’t realize that the colored-belt order is a matter of local convention—there are often competing systems, and the colored belts given out by neighborhood dojos are mostly motivational tools and revenue streams, not world-standardized signs of mastery. (In most Japanese judo dojo today, there are no colored belts for kyu-level learners, just white.) So if your neighbor’s nine-year-old earns his “black belt,”don’t worry, it’s just a piece of cloth. It doesn’t necessarily mean he can kick your butt.
Quick Quiz: What martial artist and conservative activist wrote the 2008 book Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user scottfeldstein. Used under a Creative Commons License.