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Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012

ODDS AND EVENS

Japan's judoka should use London struggles as learning tool for 2016


LONDON — Even though Japan invented judo and the nation's athletes have excelled at the Olympics and world championship competitions over the years, there were unrealistic expectations placed on Japanese judoka before the 2012 Summer Games.

Ed Odeven

Top Japanese judo officials had stated that medal domination — translation: many golds — was to be expected.

"It's very severe. We wanted two gold medals at least by now," Japan women's coach Isamu Sonoda told reporters on Thursday. "In particular, we thought we could get gold medals in the under-48 kg and under-kg categories, but we didn't win any medals at all (in those categories)."

I believe Japan had the least experienced team in terms of number of returning Olympians, and that fact alone fired up other nations to try and take advantage of Japan's relative inexperience.

(Of course, the high level of competition within the Japan judo ranks gave each first-timer who qualified for the Olympic team a solid test before they traveled to the United Kingdom.)

I think it's good for coaches to challenge their athletes and push them to achieve greatness, but doing so with a logical timetable is the right way to do it. And giving athletes a chance to grow into champions takes time. There are logical steps along the way; it's a process, really, that most winners must experience.

Learning from losses at the highest level of competition makes an individual and a team better in the long run, if one applies himself to making improvements.

Instead of griping about the lack of medals, Japan's judo officials should spread the message publicly that their mission is to groom the best possible squad for 2016. Think about the long-term future of the sport in Japan. Give the Olympic judoka positive reinforcement.

The Japan judo team will leave London with fewer gold medals than it has received in past Olympiads — four gold, one silver and two bronze in Beijing, for example. Sure, it can be disappointing, but it's not a real crisis. It's a teaching tool that can be used to transform the current Olympic squad into a great team in the future.

Japan men's coach Shinichi Shinohara summed up his frustrations over his team's failures in London by conceding it's time to go back to the drawing board.

"Anything could happen at the Olympic Games," Shinohara said Thursday. "So far, in the men's judo competition, the guys in the first and second seed had been eliminated early on. Players from other countries have got more stamina, enough to hold on to the match. I assumed they have trained steadily.

"Also, they have gained sophisticated techniques just like Japanese players. I thought they have done enough training and research . . ."

News photo
Disappointing showing: Former world champion Takamasa Anai and Japan fell short of expectations during the judo competition in London. AP

But lack of experience on the biggest stage has been a factor that Shinohara did not speak openly about during his conversations with reporters this week.

On a bright note, Kanazawa Prefecture native Kaori Matsumoto, the vivacious under-57 kg women's gold medalist (Japan's first winner in any sport in London), can potentially grow into a leader and possibly contend for multiple gold medals like now-retired star Ryoko Tani.

Every team in every sport goes through transitional periods. A changing of the guard. New generations of athletes fill sports vacated by departed individuals.

Now is that time for the Japan judo team.

It's not a crisis. It's a golden opportunity to build something majestic — that is, if those in charge have the patience, skills and wherewithal to concoct a plan to make it happen.

Revisit this issue after the 2016 Rio Summer Games. That will be a better measuring stick for so many of the current judoka, as well as the team as a whole.



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