Japan’s first family of judo are planning an Olympic takeover on Sunday — and it would not be the first time that sibling rivalry has spurred Hifumi and Uta Abe to success.
Twice-world champion Uta Abe is aiming to begin a golden day for her family at the Tokyo Games by winning the women’s under-52kg competition at the Nippon Budokan.
That would set the scene nicely for her big brother, Hifumi Abe, a twice world champion who is competing in the men’s under-66kg event later the same day.
Japan’s sparring siblings say that they are ready to take the Games by storm when they make their Olympic debut, but they might never have got this far without their friendly family rivalry.
“We’re both rooting for each other,” Uta Abe told Tokyo 2020’s official Web site this year. “We don’t talk about it directly, but even without words we both feel it.”
Hifumi Abe took up judo at the age of six and it was not long before his little sister, three years his junior, wanted to try it, too.
Their firefighter father, Koji Abe, thought that playing the piano would be a more suitable hobby for his daughter, but Uta Abe was determined, and she soon began to show even more promise on the mat than her brother.
Both tore through the judo youth circuit, racking up a glut of titles before making their senior debuts.
Hifumi Abe won his first world title in Budapest in 2017 and Uta Abe joined him a year later in Azerbaijan, making it a golden double for the family in Baku.
“My target, more than winning consecutive titles, was for us to win as brother and sister,” Hifumi Abe said after defending his world crown in 2018. “Once my younger sister won, I went into my final even more determined to win.”
However, he was not able to match Uta Abe’s achievement a year later, settling for world championship bronze as his sister retained her title.
Now they’ve got their sights set on winning Olympic gold on home soil, although Hifumi Abe needed a Herculean effort just to get to Tokyo.
He came through an unprecedented one-off playoff against world champion Joshiro Maruyama in December last year, booking his spot after an epic 24-minute bout.
The match went so deep into extra time that the terrestrial TV broadcast ended before the bout had finished, but Hifumi Abe was happy to join his sister at the Games when he came out the winner.
“I kept her waiting — now we can say we’ll go for gold together,” he told reporters. “I want to make it a stage where I display my absolute best. This isn’t my goal yet — I’ll roll up my sleeves again and strive to win.”
Uta Abe had already locked up her place at the Games before they were postponed last year.
After chasing her brother’s shadow for most of her early life, she is now the one leading the way.
She has established herself as one of judo’s most dominant athletes and at one point racked up 48 consecutive wins against non-Japanese opponents.
However, she says she has her brother to thank for the part he has played in her career.
“I couldn’t have made it this far without my older brother,” she told the Tokyo 2020 Web site. “It’s impossible to know if I would have even started learning judo without him.”
Now the siblings are hoping to turn that partnership into Olympic success, and Sunday might be a day the Abe family remembers forever.
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