TOKYO - As a martial art judo is a sport which has been hit tremendously at the grassroots level during the pandemic and at the elite level with events cancelled the world around and outbreaks in dojos and among national teams.
However, the world’s elite judoka were back doing what they best at the sport’s spiritual home of the Nippon Budokan on Saturday for the first day of the judo event.
It was not the full stands the athletes deserved, like their 1964 predecessors savored in the same venue all those years, but rather a colorful array of delegations in their Olympic kit and an abundance of guests.
Despite the lack of atmosphere and no general public to witness judo’s Olympic homecoming, we know that judoka don’t go to a Olympics to play or to take too much notice of teeming crowds, they are there to fight and to try to throw, hold down or submit their foes with a submission.
Judo is a one-on-one contact sport which is directly at odds with the COVID-19 vocabulary of terms which we cannot escape. Social distancing is impossible, you can barely breathe when training while wearing a mask and sweat flows from almost every pore of your body in a stuffy dojo with most lacking any form of ventilation.
That being said, while many recreational judoka and dojos have had different experiences of the pandemic, which is out of their hands and down to each country’s respective governments, judo enthusiasts could watch the masters of the gentle way go through the emotional rollercoaster that is Olympic judo and this time it was in the sport’s homeland.
The men’s -60kg weight category and the women’s -48kg weight category, the two lightest divisions in the seven men’s categories and seven women’s categories, typically provides fast and frenetic action with dynamic attacks, never-ending action and cat-like moves of aerial artistry.
Three-time world medallist Tonaki Funa, who turns 26 next week, was Japan’s hope in the -48kg category on day one with each country in judo only being able to pick one athlete per weight category unlike many other Olympics sports.
Tonaki started her day with a routine win over London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Csernoviczki Eva by pinning the Hungarian veteran for a waza-ari score with a kuzure-kesa-gatame (modified scarf hold) and added a match-winning second by throwing the 34-year-old with a ippon-seoi-nage (one arm shoulder throw.)
The Park 24 Corporate Club member then dismissed Argentine legend Paula Pareto with a ude-hishigi-juji-gatame (cross armlock) before defeating her long-time nemesis and Ukrainian prodigy Daria Bilodid with a yoko-shiho-gatame (side four-corner hold) in the semi-final.
Tonaki was pitted against world number one Distria Krasniqi in the final and the world leader in the category followed in the fabled footsteps of her teammate Majlinda Kelmendi who won their country’s first gold medal in their history at Rio 2016.
In a nervy final Krasniqi registered the one and only score in judo’s first Tokyo 2020 final with a cutting uchi-mata with 19 seconds remaining for a waza-ari score.
Krasniqi, who, having finally settled at the weight and no longer struggling to cut down to the 48kg limit, has become an Olympic champion, the second in her country’s history but also the second from her modest judo club in Peja where Driton Toni Kuka has turned the nation into a judo superpower.
Kuka has masterminded his second gold medal in as many Olympics and still has more charges capable of magic in the coming days including of course Kelmendi herself on Sunday.
Japanese livewire and three-time world champion Takato Naohisa was the overwhelming favorite in the -60kg category and improved on his Rio 2016 bronze by starring for the hosts at the Budokan.
Takato outgunned fellow former world champion Yeldos Smetov in the semi-finals with a sumi-otoshi (corner drop), after a win over Belgium’s Jorre Verstraeten via a uchi-mata (inner thigh throw) and a triumph against dangerous Georgian Lukhumi Chkhvimiani in golden score via penalties.
World Judo Masters silver medallist Yang Yung Wei of Chinese Taipei has been one of the form judoka in the category this year but was not tipped to enter the medal equation in Tokyo.
The 23-year-old Olympic debutant put up a defiant display against Japanese ace Takato but the latter was never truly threatened and claimed his country’s first gold medal of the Games after Yang picked up a third penalty in golden score for his defensive posture.
Takato kissed the mat and burst into tears, as his did his coach Minoru Konegawa, along with judo legend Yoshida Hidehiko on the host broadcast.
Day two of the eight-day judo event will have the men’s -66kg category and women’s -52kg category take center stage with all eyes being on Japan’s superstar siblings Abe Hifumi and Abe Uta.
Day 1 Judo Results
GOLD – Takato Naohisa (JPN)
SILVER – Yang Yung Wei (TPE)
BRONZE – Yeldos Smetov (KAZ)
BRONZE - Luka Mkheidze (FRA)
GOLD – Distria Krasniqi (KOS)
SILVER – Tonaki Funa (JPN)
BRONZE – Daria Bilodid (UKR)
BRONZE – Munkhbat Urantsetseg (MGL)