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Olympics 2012: Japan expects sun to rise again on judokas

New generation could revive fortunes after relatively mediocre Beijing Games outing in 2008.

Mongolia, thanks to Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar, is among the emerging nations in judo. Miguel Medina / AFP
Mongolia, thanks to Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar, is among the emerging nations in judo. Miguel Medina / AFP

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 the nation is looking for a comeback at London 2012.

Despite rule changes to the throwing and grappling sport that favour the Japanese, bigger opponents using unorthodox techniques have got a foothold into the sport, often at Japan's expense. The country won eight of 14 judo gold medals at the Athens Games, only four in Beijing.

This summer, Japan is betting a new generation of judokas can restore their supremacy: of the 14 judoka on the team, 12 will be making their Olympics 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 favourite 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 other countries not known for their sporting prowess - Uzbekistan, Georgia and Ukraine - boast strong medal contenders.

"There's not a weak country in judo anymore," the US 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. 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."

Pedro 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."

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