Japan’s national men’s judo team coach Kosei Inoue said he will be using the world championships starting Sunday at Tokyo’s famed Nippon Budokan as a springboard to success at the 2020 Summer Games.
“It’s really important to gain momentum for the Olympics, so I want it to be a year where we can accelerate,” Inoue said in a recent interview with Kyodo News. “We’re fighting now determined to be totally burnt out after the Olympics.”
While Japan has already been granted host nation berths in each of the men’s and women’s weight classes at next summer’s Olympics, Inoue — the 2000 Sydney Olympic gold medalist and three-time 100-kg world champion — said he will be giving top consideration to those who can secure a title.
“It’s very big within the selection system that’s been established. It will act as a huge advantage if someone becomes a world champion here,” said Inoue, who claimed his final world title on home soil at the 2003 worlds in Osaka before retiring in 2008.
“There is no doubt that we will be looking at athletes from that perspective. There will be tension among the athletes and they’ll be fighting for results.”
The All Japan Judo Federation has set a lofty goal of landing on the podium in each competition at the weeklong tournament in the Japanese capital, with Inoue expecting at least three gold medals for the host nation.
“Our goal of winning medals in every weight class hasn’t changed, but we expect at least two gold medals in the first half (up to the 73-kg division) and one or two in the second half. I want to keep the minimum line at three to four gold medals.”
Japan finished the 2018 worlds in Azerbaijan with seven golds, five silvers and four bronzes to dominate the contest between 124 countries.
Highlighting the Japanese men’s team this year will be Hifumi Abe, who will be aiming for a third consecutive title in the 66-kg division despite suffering a left ankle injury during practice in June.
Inoue said the injury ended up strengthening the rising star, who celebrated his 22nd birthday earlier this month before being sent off to the worlds with a pep rally from his Nippon Sport Science University, a mass producer of world class athletes.
“It might have been a chance for him to develop. He has developed considerably well physically, technically and mentally,” Inoue said.
“I can see he is looking at himself and trying to get back to where he was. He’s working hard in practice and in his personal life. He’ll be able to grow even more if he can win under these circumstances.”
Marking a return to the world championship stage is Shohei Ono, who will be making his first appearance since winning his second 73-kg title in 2015.
The 27-year-old took time out for graduate studies after winning gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and began his comeback on the road to 2020 with his maiden Asian Games gold last year in Indonesia and two Grand Slam titles since.
“He’s in very good shape. The old Ono is back,” Inoue said. “He is at the final stage of testing his condition, and he is looking into everything. I feel he’s still an athlete without any weak points.”
Inoue also said a victory in the over 100-kg division may come in the form of 2018 bronze medalist Hisayoshi Harasawa, with 10-time world champion Teddy Riner of France — who beat Harasawa in the 2016 Olympic final — skipping the event for the second straight year.
“It’s our hope, and Harasawa is competing with that thought in mind,” he said. “It might not be easy, but we are firmly looking at that. There’s a chance he can win.”
Other members of Team Japan with a shot at the podium include three-time world champion Naohisa Takato (60 kg), 2018 runner-up Sotaro Fujiwara (81 kg), and 2017 world champion and reigning national champion Aaron Wolf (100 kg).
The event concludes on Sept. 1 with Japan looking to continue its undefeated run in the mixed team competition, an event that will make its Olympic debut next year.