I saw the news Thursday and smiled.
Kayla Harrison had won a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. But it wasn’t Harrison who had me grinning, not that I was unhappy about her feat. Harrison is one of the finest judo players in the world. In London in 2012, she became the first American to win a gold in the discipline. Bravo for her repeat.
And I wasn’t smiling because Harrison added to what has been an outstanding Olympic Games for the women on the U.S. team. Not that I was unhappy about that, either, as the father of three girls who played a bunch of sports and as someone who’s cringed at the obstacles placed in the way of girls and women in sports, business and many other endeavors.
No, I was smiling because Harrison got me thinking about Rusty Kanokogi, and I always smile when I think about Rusty.
If you’ve never heard of her, you’re forgiven. But it’s no exaggeration to say that by the force of her relentless Brooklyn personality, she was largely responsible for women’s judo being in the Olympics. She is a reminder that all of us stand on someone else’s shoulders.
Rusty was a Coney Island original. As a teen in the 1950s, she led her own street gang called the Apaches, looking for trouble as often as it sought her out. One day, a male friend showed her a judo move, and she was hooked. The sport, she often said, saved her.
But it did not treat her well, not at first. In 1959, she and her club entered the YMCA championships in Utica. Rusty — born Rena Glickman — cut her hair and taped down her breasts with an Ace bandage to pass as male. But after she won her bout, her medal was taken away when she answered honestly after an organizer asked whether she was a woman.
It’s surreal today to think about that happening. But it did, and a fed-up Rusty moved to the sport’s homeland, Japan. She became the first woman allowed to work out in the famed Kodokan school, and earned a reputation as the best woman judo player in the world.
But here’s the thing: Women still were not allowed to compete in tournaments. And the reasons were ones heard by many women in many sports: You’ll hurt yourself. It’s too dangerous.
Rusty fought that like she fought a match, fiercely and persistently. She made calls, wrote letters, badgered officials, threatened lawsuits. And she began winning. She single-handedly created the first women’s judo world championship, in 1980 in Madison Square Garden, and mortgaged her house to help pay for it. Then she got women’s judo into the Olympics, in 1992, in Barcelona.
When Harrison won in Rio, I thought of the hours I spent sitting at Rusty’s kitchen table in the early 1990s, talking about her amazing life and her battles for a book we both lamented never got off the ground.
I thought of the progress women athletes have made, from being 2.2 percent of the athletes at the 1900 Olympics to 45 percent in Rio de Janeiro. I thought of Harrison’s 291 female teammates, 53 percent of the American team and, through Friday night, winners of 65 percent of the team’s gold medals.
I thought about Title IX, the 1972 legislation that helped spark an explosion in girls’ and women’s sports by barring sex discrimination in U.S. education. I thought of all the activist baby boomer parents who would not let their daughters be second-class sports citizens.
And I thought about how far we still have to go with our pay disparities, coded language for different genders, and sexism in the workplace and in life in general.
But mostly I thought about Rusty, who loved to fight and to win. She died in 2009. She never got to see Harrison win that first gold medal. I don’t know whether Harrison knew Rusty, or is aware of what she did. But she owes her.
We all do.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.