The French Judo team has touched down in Beijing led by Teddy Riner, a former World and European Champion in the Heavyweight class, hoping to extinguish memories of Athens where they failed to bring back a single gold medal.
AFP - Two of judo's rising stars are raring to revive an epic East-West rivalry as Japan looks to youth and experience to restore their pride in a sport they gave to the world.
Satoshi Ishii, a Japanese national champion who has never fought on the big stage, and 19-year-old world champion Teddy Riner of France will battle for the over-100kg heavyweight gold, the most prestigious Olympic judo honour.
"No doubt Riner stands out as a great wall. It's hard to guess how much he may have grown in half a year," Japanese men's head coach Hitoshi Saito said after the teenager's triumph in the blue-ribbon Paris tournament in February.
A possible showdown between Ishii and Riner in Beijing will revive memories of the fierce heavyweight rivalry between the two judo superpowers.
In the 2000 final in Sydney, David Douillet retained his Olympic title with a narrow points win over then world heavyweight and open-class champion Shinichi Shinohara.
Japan vainly protested after the referee failed to recognise a sophisticated counter-attack which could have made Shinohara the winner.
Shinohara earlier lost to the French hero on a dubious decision in the 1997 world championship final in Paris.
They both retired before the 2004 Athens Games where Keiji Suzuki regained the title for Japan by beating Russian Tamerlan Tmenov.
In Beijing, Suzuki fights in the under-100kg class in which he was the world champion in 2005.
"Judo is a brawl guided by rules," said Ishii, 21, who beat Suzuki at Japan's national championship in April to win his first-ever spot in the Olympics or the worlds.
"I will desparately go for the gold medal. The result is all I care about. How I fight is secondary."
Relatively small at 108kg and 181cm, Ishii is famous for his no-holds-barred style which has displeased purists for whom perfect execution of techniques is imperative.
Riner, a master of dynamic leg throws at 129 kg and 204cm, said: "I have only Beijing in my head and I now know what needs to be done to be ready."
The Caribbean-born Riner, also the 2007 European champion, was advised by Douillet when he beat Tmenov to become the youngest-ever world champion aged 18 in Rio De Janeiro in September.
Japan dominated the Athens tatami with a record haul of eight golds but barely retained the top spot with only three each at the world championships in 2005 and last year.
Japan's Olympic squad include seven newcomers and seven veterans.
Of them, six are Athens gold medalists: Suzuki, Masato Uchishiba (men 66kg), Maki Tsukada (women over-78kg), Masae Ueno (women 70kg), Ayumi Tanimoto (women 63kg) and Ryoko Tani (women 48kg).
Riner leads France's comeback from a title drought in Athens where the other golds went to Belarus, China, Georgia, Germany, Greece and South Korea. France won two world titles in Rio.
But Riner lost to world open champion Yasuyuki Muneta at the Hamburg Super Cup in February. Muneta bowed to Ishii at the nationals and the open class is not on the Olympic programme.
Ishii has won 18 straight bouts since stepping up to the over-100kg late last year, sweeping the Austria and Kazakh Open titles.
His rivals also include Tmenov, Athens bronze medalist Dennis van der Geest of the Netherlands and two world bronze winners, Lasha Guyejiani of Georgia and Brazilian Juan Schilittler.
Ishii said he was not worried "at all" about bigger judokas.
"I work out harder than anybody else from morning to night. I only think about getting stronger through patience and self-control."
Date created : 2008-08-05