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  • The Japanese used to dominate judo, but rule changes could cause the Olympic judo field to be more wide-open than ever in Rio.
By Omari Sankofa
August 01, 2016

It’s only natural that historically, Japan has dominated judo in the Olympics. The modern martial art was founded in Japan in the late 1800s, and of the 123 gold medals earned since it became an Olympic sport in 1964, 34 have been won by Japan. But as the sport has become more global, Japan’s stronghold has slipped.

Many of MMA’s biggest stars, like Anderson Silva, have backgrounds in judo, in which throwing and grappling are main tenets. Ronda Rousey, a fourth-degree black belt in judo, earned bronze in the 2008 Olympics, becoming the first American woman to earn a medal in the sport. As MMA and professional wrestling have risen, so have rumblings that the gatekeepers of judo have resisted the non-traditional changes that have come with other countries putting their own flourishes on the sport. In 2012, the International Judo Federation outlawed leg grabs—a move IJF president Marius Vizer told NBCOlympics.com was done to make judo stand out from wrestling—and encouraged judokas to play a more traditional, japanese style that prioritizes throwing instead of pindowns.

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Perhaps the outcome of the 2012 Olympics spurred the rule change. After winning 16 combined gold medals in the 2000, ’04 and ’08 Olympics, Japan earned just one in ’12—only the second time Japan finished behind a European country. Russia, which practices a judo style with wrestling influences, finished first with three gold medals, followed by France, which had long been Japan’s biggest European rival, and South Korea, with two gold medals. There are only two other times in the event’s history that Japan didn’t place first overall—in 1988, when Japan was bested by South Korea and Poland, and ’80, when Japan boycotted the games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The field could be even more wide-open this year. The U.S. will return Kayla Harrison, who won the first-ever judo gold for the U.S. in 2012, and Travis Stevens, who is coming off of a historic win in the 2016 World Judo Masters. Brazil, one of the most skilled judo countries in the world, will not only have a high-ranking judoka in each weight class, but home-court advantage as well. Japan, France, South Korea and several other countries will have strong cases for bringing home gold.

Athletes to watch

Kayla Harrison, USA

Harrison put the United States on the map in 2012 when she defeated Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons to become America’s first Olympic gold medalist in judo. Impressively, she won the medal five months after tearing her MCL and underwent reconstructive knee surgery after her Olympic victory. The Middletown, Ohio native is now back at full strength, winning consecutive gold medals at the Judo World Masters in 2015 and ’16. Thanks to this year’s win, Harrison is ranked No. 1 in the 78-kg weight class by the International Judo Federation.

Mayra Aguiar, Brazil

Aguiar, Harrison’s biggest rival, is one of the most accomplished Brazilian judokas in the history of the sport. The two have faced each other 17 times in their careers, with Harrison taking home nine victories. Aguiar took home bronze in the 2012 Olympics, placing behind Harrison and Gibbons. Ranked No. 3 in the 78-kg weight class by the IJF, Aguiar is once again projected to be a threat at the Rio Olympics. It won’t hurt that she will be in her home country this time around.

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Majlinda Kelmeni, Kosovo

Kelmeni has been on a tear since 2013, taking home gold in the ’13 and ’14 World Judo Championships and the ’14 and ’16 European Judo Championships. Kelmeni was not allowed to represent Kosovo in 2012 due to the International Olympic Committee’s unwillingness to recognize the Olympic Committee of Kosovo, spurring her to represent Albania instead. The IOC changed its tune in 2014, and as a result Kelmeni will wave the Kosovo flag during the Parade of Nations at the Rio Opening Ceremony. Kelmeni is the favorite in the 52-kg weight class and is ranked No. 1 in her class.

Travis Stevens, USA

In May, Stevens became the first U.S. male to win the 81 kg. division at the World Judo Masters tournament. After finishing fifth during the Olympic Games in 2012, Stevens will attempt to join Harrison as the only U.S. athletes to take home gold in judo. Stevens suffered a concussion last March after knocking his head against the ground in the midst of a big throw. The blow caused memory loss, according to The Seattle Times, and he didn’t resume training until two-and-a-half months later. His return to training was short lived, as Stevens then had to overcome several knee issues. Now healthy, and one of the highest-ranked judokas in the world, Stevens will have much to compete for in this year’s Olympics.

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Teddy Riner, France

With eight World Championship gold medals and a 2012 Olympic gold medal, Riner is perhaps the most accomplished judoka ever. A world championship by the time he was 18, the now 27-year-old hasn’t lost since 2010 and is the No. 1 heavyweight (+100 kg)in the world. Riner is one of 14 French judokas who will compete in Rio. This will be his third Olympic try, as he took home bronze in Beijing in 2008.

Rafael Silva, Brazil

Silva, who earned bronze in the 100+ kg weight class in 2012, has routinely dominated the Pan American Judo Championship. He earned gold in 2012, ’13, ’14 and ’16, and silver in ’11 and ’15. Formally ranked No. 1 in his class, Silva will try to bring home a gold medal for his home country.

Gold-medal dates

Men’s 60 kg—Aug. 6
Men’s 66 kg—Aug. 7
Men’s 73 kg—Aug. 8
Men’s 81 kg—Aug. 9
Men’s 90 kg—Aug. 10
Men’s 100 kg—Aug. 11
Men’s +100 kg—Aug. 12

Women’s 48 kg—Aug. 6
Women’s 52 kg—Aug. 7
Women‘s 57 kg—Aug. 8
Women’s 63 kg—Aug. 9
Women’s 70 kg—Aug. 10
Women’s 78 kg—Aug. 11
Women’s +78 kg—Aug. 12

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