Being a world number one is something special, no matter the area of expertise, from the best judoka to the PGA Tour or a heavyweight title holder in boxing. A world number 1 in every field has worked and learned and certainly failed but most importantly has kept going and has remained engaged with the process of improvement.

In judo there are two sets of ranking lists, running side by side. The extensive athlete ranking lists with divisions by weight, by nation, by Olympic qualification or continuous world ranking, divided by age category too, are those most looked at but next to them is a referees’ ranking list which lists the grades earned by referees at all of their international appearances. It is as competitive as the athletes’ lists and has two huge prizes available in each Olympic cycle. The top 16 referees in the world, considering continental allocations too, will be invited to referee at the Olympic Games. The next 12 will have the opportunity to officiate at the Paralympic Games.

On the refereeing list, the current world number one is Raul Camacho (ESP), also a kata expert and a big judo fan. He made the cut for the Tokyo Olympic Games but has continued to do his best to develop in his role.

Raul Camacho refereeing at the Tokyo Olympic Games, 2021.

“Since 2015, I passed the examination in Tunis, I have been an IJF referee and in this 8 or 9 years I have found myself checking the rankings less and less. My way of being is to try to be as calm as possible. When calm we find better positions. I’m always nervous inside and I do have to work hard at this.

I cannot say I’m unhappy with my ranking but really, although we are rivals, we are also a team and even a family. The team is actually getting stronger and stronger. There are many referees with a very good level. Sometimes we have difficult contests to referee and of course they can have an impact on how we work on the mat. I think maybe I enjoyed a little luck with this over the years."

Refereeing at the 2024 Baku Grand Slam.

"I like it when there are really complicated situations and within half a second a referee gives the decision and it’s correct. Some referees can get it right so fast and it’s great to see.

In Europe the refereeing level is very very high. If you’re in a good position in Europe then it is almost certain you will be in a good place in the IJF list but this means it’s very hard for new referees to break in to that top level, it takes a lot of work. Also, just as there is a continental quota for the Olympic Games for the athletes, there is one for us and so not all of the best European referees will be able to go to Paris this summer. We all understand the system and appreciate why it works that way but it can be hard sometimes, the competition is at such a high level. Therefore, we have to continue to learn and work to be the best we can be and it takes a lot of time and energy; the margins are so small at the top. Step by step, due to the pre-event training sessions and the annual seminars, all shared with the coaches and referees, we are getting closer together in our thinking and this is a good thing."

The Baku Grand Slam referee meeting, held at the Azerbaijan Judo Federation National Training Centre, 2024.

"What’s hard is to leave the family so often. I like to travel and referee in different places but with each nomination comes an absence from home and I do miss my family. I think this is a normal situation for many judoka too. Other than that, actually everything is nice.”

Sometimes the referees have negative attention but it is easy to blame someone else when an athlete doesn’t win or meet a goal. Surely, the bottom line has to be that the athletes and coaches carry the responsibility to work towards ippon, always. If this is the emphasis then everything moves in the right direction. The referee is unable to make a mistake when a clear ippon is offered but still there are fine lines to walk, of course, and with high stakes in the sporting world, these fine lines can become blurred.

“Referees will never make mistakes deliberately because they are all competing for places themselves and we all want to be at our best. We can miss things and we can make mistakes but the supervisors and replays usually help us find the solution that is fair to both fighters. The system helps them as much as it helps us. Several cameras alongside other mechanisms are really positive but if we make mistakes, even if they are rectified, our ranking is affected. Perhaps many people don’t know that.

I’m looking forward to the Paris Games, as long as all stays as it is; I know there is always a chance I will make a big error and it could cost me my place. But I will work hard to avoid that. Because of my age it will be my last Games but in some ways it’s a nice feeling. Maybe I am the grandpa of the group and that makes me laugh. I would like to carry on but I understand why it’s not possible. I know the group respect me but this is not just about my age or stage. Even when I began, as a rookie, I was accepted from the beginning. I feel this same inclusion now, as I am coming to the end of this part of my judo career but so much has been shared along the way. It’s been and continues to be good.”

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