London, Jun25: The birthplace of judo is struggling to stay on top of the sport.
Judo is a source of national pride in Japan, where the martial art originated. But the country's judo ego has been bruised in recent years, and it's looking for a comeback at the London Olympics.
Despite rule changes to the throwing and grappling sport that favor the Japanese, bigger opponents using unorthodox techniques have gotten a foothold into the sport, often at Japan's expense. The country won eight of 14 judo gold medals at the Athens Games, then dropped to four in Beijing.
This summer, Japan is betting a new generation of judo players can restore their supremacy: of the 14 judoka on the team, 12 will be making their Olympic debut.
“For the Japanese, nothing less than gold will do,” said Nicolas Messner, who is a spokesman for the International Judo Federation, the martial art's governing body. “Japan will definitely be the favorite in the Olympics, though in some categories, there will be a lot of surprises.”
Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar earned Mongolia's first Olympic medal at the Beijing Games, and a couple other countries not known for their sporting prowess—Uzbekistan, Georgia and Ukraine—boast strong medal contenders for the London Olympics.
“There's not a weak country in judo anymore,” U.S. Olympic coach Jimmy Pedro said. “The Olympics for some countries like Egypt and Iran represents what they are all about. They want to exceed at the strong, manly sports to send a message to the rest of the world.”
After the Beijing Olympics, officials changed the rules to preserve the sport's Japanese origins after they saw wrestling techniques creeping into judo. Direct attacks on the leg that don't involve any other techniques in combination are forbidden.
Now competitors rely more on traditional Japanese judo, which focuses on throws from an upright position. The change also increased the number of fights which end in ippon, judo's equivalent of a knockout. Ippons are usually won when a judoka throws his or her rival flat on their back with force and control.
It also has made judo more interesting and easier to follow for spectators.
“We know people complain that judo is complicated to understand,” Messner said. “But even if you don't understand the rules, it's clear when someone gets thrown to the ground who has won the match.”
There are only two judo veterans on Japan's Olympic team: Misato Nakamura, who won a bronze medal in Beijing in the women's 52-kilogram division and Takamasa Anai, the defending Japanese champion in the men's 100-kilogram category for the past four years. At 27, Anai is the oldest judoka on the team and says it's his job to set the tone for the team's London performance.
Pedro predicted the London Olympics may be the United States' best chance for a gold medal. Kayla Harrison is ranked No. 4 in the world in the women's 78-kilogram division, and Pedro said she is on track to peak at London after recently winning a competition in Brazil.
“We sent a message that Kayla's ready to fight anybody, anytime,” Pedro said.
Harrison could face world No. 1 Mayra Aguiar of Brazil in the semifinals. Pedro thinks she will go on to win gold if she can get past that round.
Aside from Harrison and her teammates, Pedro is looking forward to watching judo at its highest level at the Olympics.
“You're not going to get any more spectacular judo than you'll see at 60 kilograms,” he said, adding he was particularly looking forward to seeing top-ranked fighter Rishod Sobirov of Uzbekistan.
Pedro also predicted five-time world champion Teddy Riner of France would add to his medal collection with an Olympic gold.
“He's in a class all by himself,” Pedro said. “If you were going to pick one guy to put your money on to say he's going to be an Olympic champion, I'd bet on Teddy.”
Gold: Tomoko Fukumi, Japan
Silver: Sarah Menezes, Brazil
Bronze: Urantsetseg Munkhbat, Mongolia, Shugen Wu, China
Gold: Misato Nakamura, Japan
Silver: Bundmaa Munkhbaatar, Mongolia
Bronze: Natalia Kuziutina, Russia, Erika Miranda, Brazil
Gold: Kaori Matsumoto, Japan
Silver: Rafaela Silva, Brazil
Bronze: Automne Pavia, France, Telma Monteiro, Portugal
Gold: Yoshie Ueno, Japan
Silver: Gevrise Emane, France
Bronze: Lili Xu, China, Anicka van Emden, Netherlands
Gold: Lucie Decosse, France
Silver: Haruka Tachimoto, Japan
Bronze: Edith Bosch, Netherlands, Ye-Sul Hwang, South Korea
Gold: Akari Ogata, Japan
Silver: Kayla Harrison, U.S.A.
Bronze: Audrey Tcheumeo, France, Mayra Aguiar, Brazil
Gold: Mika Sugimoto , Japan
Silver: Wen Tong, China
Bronze: Elena Ivashchenko, Russia, Lucija Polavder, Slovenia
Gold: Rishod Sobiroz, Uzbekistan
Silver: Hirofumi Yamamoto, Japan
Bronze: Amiran Papinashvili, Georgia, Georgii Zantaraia, Ukraine
Gold: Masashi Ebinuma, Japan
Silver: Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar, Mongolia
Bronze: Alim Gadanov, Russia, Leandro Cunha, Brazil
Gold: Ki-Chun Wang, South Korea
Silver: Riki Nakaya, Japan
Bronze: Mansur Isaev, Russia, Ugo Legrand, France
Gold: Jae-Bum Kim, South Korea
Silver: Leandro Guilheiro
Bronze: Takahiro Nakai, Japan, Travis Stevens, U.S.A.
Gold: Masashi Nishiyama , Japan
Silver: Ilias Iliadis, Greece
Bronze: Dilshod Choriev, Uzbekistan, Asley Gonzalez, Cuba
Gold: Takamasa Anai, Japan
Silver: Henk Grol, Netherlands
Bronze: Maxim Rakov, Kazakhstan, Tuvshinbayar Naidan, Mongolia
Gold: Teddy Riner, France
Silver: Sung-Min Kim, South Korea
Bronze: Andreas Toelzer, Germany, Islam El Shehaby, Egypt