The Tokyo Olympic Games will open in July 2020 but there's already no time to waste for the athletes. Over the next couple of years, most of them will come to Japan to fine-tune their preparations and ensure their qualifications.
“Judo comes from Japan so if you want to learn or become better at yourself then I think Japan is the best place to come.”
It is that obvious for Sally Conway who, among other of the world's best judokas, is already preparing in Japan to be as ready as she can for the sports' great comeback to its birthplace in Tokyo in 2020.
At 31, she has lost count of how many times she visited the country for training. This time, she was in Tokyo for a fortnight with other Olympic hopefuls from the British Judo Association to maximise her chances to be part of Team GB in two years' time.
Judo is one of the most popular sports in Japan with more than 150,000 registered practitioners at the National Judo Federation. Its name means ‘gentle way’, but Judo is a full-on combat sport in which a false move or the slightest loss of concentration can result in defeat.
Olympic Sports : Judo
“There are so many people to practice with out here, in Britain we do not have as many, explains Sally, and they are all technically very good, their posture is so good. You have to really outgrip them, and move, and you have to link all your judo together to be able to throw them. So when you do throw them, you think ‘ok, that must have been the right position because you've been able to throw the Japanese girl’.”
Everytime I come my judo gets better
In Tokyo too, along with Sally, was her teammate Lubjana ‘Lulu’ Piovesana. She is only 21 but she already trained in Japan on several occasions. “Everytime I come my judo gets better, I see a lot of improvements while I'm out here,” she reckons. But Lulu believes that these visits are also beneficial for the Japanese athletes as “some of them don't get to travel out as much as we do so they get to fight people of the European style, some of them think we fight differently.”
Judo originated in Japan in the late 19th century and it entered the Olympic programme at Tokyo 1964, where Japan won the gold medal in all classes except one. Since then, the sport has spread throughout the world. Tokyo 2020 will be a special Olympic Games for Judo as the sport will return to the same venue where it first appears, the Nippon Budokan, Japan's sacred place for martial arts.
“If I qualify, to have my last Olympics in the home of Judo, I think that would be very special,” tells Sally, who knows very well what the Olympics represents for an athlete. She took part in the London 2012 and the Rio 2016 Games, clinching a bronze medal at the latter. “It only comes around once every four years, it is probably the pinnacle of our sport,” she said, adding that she would never exchange her medal for any other title.
Lulu, 21, has not yet participated in an Olympic Games but she already imagines what the atmosphere could be like in Tokyo in 2020, “Japanese know a lot about judo so I think it will be quite a knowledgeable crowd”.
The road to the Olympics is still long, with the qualifications as the next target. They expect to have another six trips to Japan within the next couple of years with even more training - and some Japanese delicacies to keep morale high; eel sushi for Sally and Harajuku-style crepe for Lulu.
Judo is also a Paralympic sport! Learn the rules here:
Paralympic Sports : Judo