Japan can no longer dominate judo

Japan can no longer dominate judo

Published Jun. 20, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

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 in 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, 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 three 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 that 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 says Harrison will 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.''


Medal projections:



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

78-kilogram plus

Gold: Megumi Tachimoto, 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: Daiki 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

100-kilogram plus

Gold: Teddy Riner, France

Silver: Sung-Min Kim, South Korea

Bronze: Andreas Toelzer, Germany, Islam El Shehaby, Egypt