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Everything you need to know about Olympic judo, including Canada's chances

Six athletes will represent Canada in the judo competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The judo competition begins on July 24 at the Nippon Budokan, and five Canadians are in a prime position, possessing top-10 in the world status

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Six athletes will represent Canada in the judo competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

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The judo competition begins on July 24 at the Nippon Budokan, and five Canadians are in a prime position, possessing world top 10 status.

Judo Canada Chief Executive Officer and High Performance Director Nicolas Gill — himself a two-time Olympic medallist — is hopeful and cautiously optimistic the squad could provide exciting and historical moments for the program, and for fans of Canadian judo.

“We have world-class athletes and we’ve never entered the Olympics with five athletes at that (top 10) level,” Gill said. “We are in a position we have never been before. I think this is our goal and mandate. We’ve put programs in place to be there, so it’s great to see.”

Gill is familiar with the concept of world class, having competed in four consecutive Olympic Games, from Barcelona in 1992 to Athens in 2004. The 47-year-old won bronze in the middleweight category in Barcelona and won silver in the half heavyweight category at the Sydney Games in 2000.

Gill took over as CEO and HPD after the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Jessica Klimkait of Whitby, Ont., is the No. 1 female in the world in the 57-kg weight class, while Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard of St. Hubert, QC., is ranked No. 7 in the 63-kg weight division.

Beauchemin-Pinard competed in the 2016 Rio Games, eliminated in the second round of the 57-kg class.

Arthur Margelidon of Montreal is the No. 8 male at the 73-kg division, Antoine Valois-Fortier of Quebec City is ranked No. 9 in the 81-kg division, while Shady El Nahas of Mississauga, Ont., is ranked No. 8 in the biggest class of them all: the +100-kg weight class.

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Margelidon won a bronze medal in the 73-kg category at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. Tokyo will be his first Olympic games.

Ecaterina Guica from La Prairie, QC., is the lone member of the squad who isn’t a member of the Top 10 club, ranking No. 28 heading in to the 52-kg competition. The Romanian-born judoka made the Olympic team in 2016, finishing ninth in the 52-kg weight class in Rio.

Naturally, with five athletes holding these prime positions, there are expectations and standards to uphold as a member of this team. As much as these athletes are setting high expectations for themselves—no doubt the highest spot on the podium come the medal ceremony — Gill tempered his medal-count expectations, employing a statistical model when asked for his thoughts.

“Normally, the ratio of one-third in judo is a safe estimate,” Gill said. “If you have three medal contenders, normally, you have one that is going to be on the podium. You’ll have one that is close and one that is off. With five, to have two on the podium would be a great achievement.  My rule of thumb is: win the fights you’re supposed to win and that’s all we can ask of our (athletes) to do.”

When asked, the high-performance director was willing to stick his neck out on a couple of his athletes who could surprise, and who could upend his one-third medal-winning sensibilities.

Besides Klimkait providing a strong chance at a medal, Gill calling her “very dynamic and very hard to fight,” the two-time Olympian sees two players on the men’s side who could earn a place on the podium.

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“(Valois-Fortier) is nearing the end of his career but he’s still very fit—in 2019 he won a bronze at the worlds—so his level is there and he needs the right piece of the puzzle to align to compete for a medal. He’s in a very competitive weight class, maybe the trickiest weight class of them all. It’s a safe bet it will be four or five world-class athletes (battling) to be on the podium. The task is huge. He has done it before but there is no guarantee. It won’t be easy.”

The CEO is excited to see what the 22-year-old heavyweight from southern Ontario can do in his first Olympic Games, noting the pressure to perform can often separate the wheat from the chaff, the lions from the lambs in the Olympic crucible.

“El Nahas narrowly missed a bronze medal at the worlds in June,” Gill said. “He’s fit, he’s ready to go, he’s young and he’s hungry. What will be the impact of (being a) first-time Olympian, the added pressure, can he handle it properly or not? He’s a very dangerous player, not someone I would want to face if I was a 100-kilo player. Tokyo is just one of numerous Olympics for him. He’s been around the podium (at other competitions) and he is hungry for it. All is there for him to do it again.”

Everything you wanted to know
The judo mixed-team event makes its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games this summer.

The event will consist of three weight categories for the men and three categories for the women.

The three weight categories for the men are 73-kg, 90-kg and +90-kg and the weight categories for the women are 57-kg, 70kg and +70kg.

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Amid all the pomp and circumstance surrounding its Olympic introduction, the Canadian team won’t be participating in the mixed event.

“We originally qualified for (the mixed-team event) but following the withdraw of Kelita Zupancic we no longer met the selection requirements,” Gill said. “It will be an exciting event and I wish we could take part.”

Gill gave a bare bones explanation how the event will work.

“An athlete faces another (country’s) athlete from (his/her own) weight class and the first team that wins four matches moves on to the next round,” Gill said.

If there is a tie after six matches then a random draw is made and two competitors from the same weight category will fight to decide the winner.

The matches are single elimination until the quarter-finals. Once a team reaches the quarterfinal, the losing teams will get moved to a second bracket where they will compete for a bronze medal. At the end of the competition there will be one gold medal, one silver medal and two bronze medals awarded.

Japan is the favourite to win the event after winning the last four world championships, starting in 2017. The 2020 IJF world championships in Turkey were cancelled due to COVID-19.

“(The event) is an extra medal, that’s definitely the benefit of it,” Gill said. “We’re in an individual sport and it’s great to opportunity to get a bit of team cohesion and team spirit going on and having athletes competing for their teammates.”

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I saw the sign:
French judoka Clarisse Agbegnenou is a believer in signs, sort of.

And not the kind of supportive signs French fans wave after witnessing her domination at the 63-kg (middleweight) class — that’s been kind of commonplace through the years–but more the celestial body kind of signs.

“It’s true, that I’m really (a Scorpio) because if it doesn’t go in my way, I bite. I bite really, really hard,” Agbegnenou told the Olympic Channel Podcast.

However, it  did happen to go her way back in June of this year, and that ‘bite’ was there for all in attendance to see.

When the middleweight Agbegnenou took out her opponent—Andreja Leski of Slovenia at the International Judo Federation World Judo Championship in Budapest, she won her fifth world championship.

On her Instagram page, dated June 9, she documented the moment following the match; the gold medal cradled in her right hand, her left hand holding up five fingers to represent five world championships.

“Non mais, 5 fois championne du monde quoi,” Agbegnenou said, which roughly translates to, “No, but five times world champion.”

Agbegnenou is now fourth place all-time in the number of world titles won by a woman. In front are Ryoko Tani with seven, Wen Tong with seven and Ingrid Berghmans with six. She is the second most decorated French judoka behind Teddy Riner.

Seemingly, the only colour missing on the mantelpiece is Olympic gold, as Agbegnenou won silver in 2016, finishing second to Tina Trstenjak of Slovenia in Rio.

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Agbegnenou doesn’t seem to be short on ambition or motivation; both common traits of a Scorpio.

“When I want something, I’m going (for it) like hundred percent even more to have it,” Agbegnenou said on the podcast. “And it’s like, ‘OK, I want to be Olympic champion.’ (Then I’m) going to do everything to be Olympic champion.”

Best non-Canadian medal contender:
Shohei Ono of Japan leads a strong class of judoka in the lightweight/half middleweight category.

Ono, colloquially known by some fans as the ‘Mozart of the 73-kg class,’ is one judoka who should prevail in this weight class.

If past results are reliable indicators of future performance then Ono looks a strong wager to win gold in his home country.

The 29-year-old won the gold medal in the lightweight class at the Rio Games in 2016, when he defeated Rustam Orujov of Azerbaijan. However, his outstanding performances in the years leading up to Rio, and the subsequent years since, look like the results of a martial artist who’s able to dominate a sport, loosely translated into English as meaning  the ‘gentle way.’

When it comes to results, there isn’t anything loose or ‘gentle’ about this man.

Ono won the International Judo Federation world championship in 2013, 2015 and 2019. ‘Mozart’ also won five IJF Grand Slams since 2012. He also won two Dusseldorf Grand Prix events in 2015 and 2016 and grabbed gold in the 73-kg class at the world junior championship in 2011.

And from fighting in his home country, to acting as a role model for kids, he possesses plenty of motivation and intangibles to win consecutive gold medals.

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Consecutive gold medals would be, no doubt, music to the ears of this composer and grand practitioner of judo.

“I need to continue growing as a person that is worthy of being a gold medalist,” Ono told the Olympic website back in January. “My aim is to become the best and strongest judoka I can possibly be, and to become an athlete that children can look up to.”

Best Canadian medal contender:
Jessica Klimkait is probably the top Canadian contender for a judo medal.

The Whitby, Ont., native won a world title at 57-kg after she defeated Momo Tamaoki at the 2021 International Judo Federation World Championships in Budapest back in June of this year.

She went into the competition as the second-ranked woman in the world for her weight class. Upon winning in Hungary, the 24-year-old is now ranked number one in the world at 57-kg.

“She’s quick and very active and can win matches by throwing her opponent and she can win her matches by outworking them and, technically, winning the match,” Gill said. “And she can win on the ground, too.”

The gold medal win in Budapest was the first in her senior career but she’s no stranger to the podium, having won gold in the 52-kg category at the 2013 IJF Cadet World Championships in Miami.

After the victory in Florida, Klimkait became the first Canadian to win a judo championship at any level. Klimkait also won a gold medal (2017 in Panama) and a bronze medal (2018 in Costa Rica) at the Pan American Judo Confederation Pan American Championships.

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“She’s well-balanced (with) no real weakness and she’s pretty much beat everybody in the weight class at least once,” Gill said. “And she’s in form as she just won worlds. She has medalled pretty much every event she has entered the last three years.”

By the numbers:
There are seven men’s and seven women’s weight categories and one mixed category making its debut at the Tokyo Olympics. Judo is comprised of 100 techniques with 68 throwing techniques and 32 grappling techniques. A ‘Waza Ari’ is a controlled throw worth a half point.  Generally speaking, an ‘Ippon’ is a successful throw, a point awarded when the throw is performed with power and control, the opponent landing on his back. There are three ways a match is won: competitor scores an Ippon or two Waza Ari’s, an opponent is disqualified and an opponent can’t continue or gives up. Each match lasts four minutes. The Nippon Budokan, the site for this year’s judo tournament, opened in 1964.

Non-Canadian story line
French judoka Teddy Riner has his thoughts firmly focused on winning another Olympic gold medal in the +100-kilogram weight category at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The 32-year-old Frenchman issued a verbal warning, his words oozing confidence while, at the same time, dripping with caution for his competitors.

“It’s important to set the record straight and to send a strong message,” the 32-year-old told French daily newspaper LÉquipe back in early January. “Make (my opponents) understand that the Olympics will be mine.”

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Riner won the gold medal at the London Games in 2012, and followed the accomplishment with another médaille d’or at the Rio Games in 2016. Riner also won a bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008.

Riner is on the cusp of Olympic judo immortality, looking to match the all-time record of three consecutive gold medals, set by Japan’s Tadahiro Nomura, who accomplished the feat in the 60-kg weight class.

Nomura won gold in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens in 2004.

In the past decade many European athletes have ascended into global-brand territory, athletic anomalies known to sports enthusiasts on every continent. But none reached a level of consistency like Riner, yet the judoka seems relatively unheralded outside of France and the judo community at-large.

Between September of 2010 and February of 2020 the Frenchman won 154 consecutive matches. In that time span he picked up two Olympic gold medals, seven world championships and won multiple gold medals at European, World Masters, Grand Slam and Grand Prix events.

Quite simply, he was the best there was in the heavyweight category.

Gill crossed paths with Riner on a handful of occasions and knows exactly what has made the six-foot-eight and 308 lbs. judoka so successful since his pro debut in 2007.

“To have done judo with him, and been around him, he’s an incredible athlete,” Gill said. “He’s big, he’s massive but, to me, what makes (him strong), it’s tactical, it’s intelligence and it’s preparation. You should not be fooled by the look, he’s not winning because he’s bigger and stronger than others; he’s winning because he’s smarter and better prepared.”

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Despite the glowing review from Gill, even the best can be beaten and that happened to Riner, as the headline on the official Olympic website said about that fateful day in 2020, ‘Teddy Riner’s 10-year unbeaten run in over,’ CNN countering with ‘French judo great Teddy Riner loses first fight in nearly 10 years.’

Yes, it was Japan’s Kokoro Kageura who bested Riner at the International Judo Federation Paris Grand Slam on Feb. 9.

Kageura, who lost to Riner at the IJF Montreal Grand Prix in July of 2019, countered Riner with a hand-throwing technique called an ‘uchi-mata-sukashi’ with 40 seconds remaining in golden score (kind of like overtime) as the capacity crowd, cheering in unison ‘Teddy, Teddy,’ watched on in hushed tones at the Bercy Arena in the south-east suburbs of Paris.

Riner was pragmatic about the loss, noting on his Twitter account he was relieved the pressure to keep winning was finally over and done with.

Heavy is the head that wears the heavyweight crown.

“(February 9) is a day without a medal,” Riner tweeted following the loss. “It’s true that it’s weird but it’s part of the game. That’s sport, there are victories and defeats. So we go back to work, find out why it went wrong and, above all, continue to stay focused on Tokyo.”

Prior to his defeat in the French capital, his last loss came against Kamikawa Daiki, the Japanese judoka getting the business done in September of 2010 in the open category at the world championships in Tokyo.

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Things got slightly worse for Riner as he dropped his second consecutive match, losing to Joseph Terhec at the French national team championships some eight months later in Paris.

But if opponents in the heavyweight division, including Shady El Nahas of Mississauga, Ont., entertained the notion Riner was on the down side of his career; they should reassess.

Following his defeat to Terhec, Riner changed his strength coach and sparring partner, started practicing yoga, cleaned up his diet by ditching the sweets and cakes, opting for a diet more suitable for a world-class athlete.

Tightening up his handle resulted in a significant weight loss, as Riner returned to his winning ways in January of this year, beating 23-year-old Inal Tasoev of Russia in the final of the Doho World Judo Masters.

Riner says he’s about 26 kilos lighter and ready to enter the record books at the Nippon Budokan.

“The waiting is over,” Riner said on his Twitter feed, dated July 12. “All the training, the long months of grind has led to this moment. My body is primed, my mind is sharp. I am ready.”

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