Japan’s first family of judo are planning an Olympic takeover on July 25 — and it wouldn’t be the first time sibling rivalry has spurred Hifumi and Uta Abe to success.
Twice-world champion Uta is aiming to kick off a golden day for her family at the Tokyo Games by winning the women’s 52-kilogram competition at the iconic Nippon Budokan.
That would set the scene nicely for big brother Hifumi, a twice world champion who is competing in the men’s 66 kg event later the same day.
Japan’s sparring siblings say they are ready to take the Games by storm when they make their Olympic debut, and they might never have got this far without their friendly family rivalry.
“We’re both rooting for each other,” Uta told Tokyo 2020’s official website this year.
“We don’t talk about it directly, but even without words we both feel it.”
Hifumi took up judo at the age of six, and it wasn’t long before little sister Uta, three years his junior, wanted to try it too.
Their firefighter father Koji thought playing the piano would be a more suitable hobby for his daughter.
But Uta was determined, and she soon began to show even more promise on the mat than her older brother.
Both ripped through the judo youth circuit, racking up a glut of titles before making their senior debuts.
Hifumi won his first world title in 2017, and Uta joined him a year later, making it a golden double for the Abe family in Baku.
“My target, more than winning consecutive titles, was for us to win as brother and sister,” Hifumi told reporters after defending his world crown in 2018.
“Once my younger sister won, I went into my final even more determined to win.”
But Hifumi wasn’t able to match Uta’s achievement a year later, settling for world championship bronze as his sister retained her title.
Now they’ve got their sights set on winning Olympic gold on home soil, although Hifumi needed a Herculean effort just to get to Tokyo.
He came through an unprecedented one-off playoff against world champion Joshiro Maruyama in December, booking his spot after an epic 24-minute bout.
The match went so deep into extra time that the terrestrial TV broadcast ended before the bout had finished, but Hifumi was happy to join Uta at the Games when he came out the winner.
“I kept her waiting — now we can say we’ll go for gold together,” he told reporters.
“I want to make it a stage where I display my absolute best. This isn’t my goal yet — I’ll roll up my sleeves again and strive to win.”
Uta had already locked up her place at the Games before they were postponed last year.
After chasing her brother’s shadow for most of her early life, she is now the one leading the way.
She has established herself as one of judo’s most dominant athletes, and at one point racked up 48 consecutive wins against non-Japanese opponents.
But she says she has Hifumi to thank for the part he has played in her career.
“I couldn’t have made it this far without my older brother,” she told the Tokyo 2020 website. “It’s impossible to know if I would have even started learning judo without him.”
Now the siblings are hoping to turn that partnership into Olympic success, and July 25 could be a day the Abe family remembers forever.
Hifumi posted a New Year photo of himself and his sister on Instagram after a visit to a shrine, having made their prayers for the year ahead.
The message was simple: “In 2021, we’ll win gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics as brother and sister.”
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