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 is 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 some 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,” US 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 do not 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. Ippon is 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, but even if you don’t understand the rules, it’s clear when someone gets thrown to the ground who has won the match,” Messner said.
There are only two judo veterans on Japan’s Olympic team: Misato Nakamura, who won a bronze medal in Beijing in the women’s 52kg division and Takamasa Anai, the defending Japanese champion in the men’s 100kg category for the past four years. At 27, Anai is the oldest judoka on the team and says it is his job to set the tone for the team’s London performance.
Pedro predicted the London Olympics may be the US’ best chance for a gold medal. Kayla Harrison is ranked No. 4 in the world in the women’s 78kg 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 semi-finals. 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 that he was particularly looking forward to seeing top-ranked fighter Rishod Sobirov of Uzbekistan.