With the 2012 London Olympics on the horizon, a heated battle is expected in the months ahead to determine who will represent Japan in the judo competitions at the Summer Games.
The five gold medals Japanese judoka won at the recently completed world championships in Paris revealed that the women's lightweight categories look strong, while the men's heavyweight categories are seriously lacking.
In Paris, two judoka were allowed to compete in each weight category per nation, unlike the Olympics, where there will be only one.
"Only one judoka can go to the Olympics in each category," said Kazuo Yoshimura, an official at the All Japan Judo Federation. "That means there will be double the pressure. Our judoka aren't fully aware of that yet."
Of the five gold medalists at this year's worlds, four judoka (Masashi Ebinuma, men's 66 kg; Misato Nakamura, women's 52 kg; Aiko Sato, women's 57 kg; and Riki Nakaya, men's 73 kg) are considered second-best in Japan in their weight categories by the Japan judo federation. With Junpei Morishita, Yuka Nishida, Kaori Matsumoto and Hiroyuki Akimoto considered tops by the AJJF in these respective weight categories, these divisions will by hotly contested to see who will represent Japan at the Summer Olympics.
World No. 1 Haruna Asami--who won the women's 48-kg gold for the second consecutive world championships--will also face a tough challenge from world silver medalist Tomoko Fukumi.
Japan's five gold medals in Paris are three fewer than it won at the 2010 world championships in Tokyo.
But last year, many foreign judoka lost out after being unable to adapt their style to the new rule changes, such as a ban on tackling techniques. At this year's competition, those athletes had fully adapted to the new rules and were able to do their best, leveling the playing field with their Japanese counterparts.
Japan's weak spot was in the men's 100-kg and over-100-kg categories, where it failed to win medals of any color. The judo federation needs to urgently decide whether to concentrate its efforts on training judoka other than Daiki Kamikawa, who shows a lack of enthusiasm, and Keiji Suzuki, who is showing signs of weak stamina, as Olympic hopefuls.
The key to who will represent Japan in London will likely be determined in May's All-Japan Weight Class Judo Championship, the last competition to be taken into consideration for selecting the one judoka to represent Japan in each category.
Due to the implementation of the new world ranking system, many judoka need to compete in numerous international meets, which has resulted in many athletes continuing to compete with injuries. Another significant factor that will determine who wins the Olympic tickets will be how judoka condition themselves during the winter while competing in international meets.
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