Hosts Japan snatched double gold at the world judo championships Monday as Joshiro Maruyama and Uta Abe powered to victory to fire a warning ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
After failing to win a title on day one at the weekend, normal service was quickly resumed for the Japanese at the capital’s iconic Budokan martial arts venue.
World number two Maruyama produced a shock win over countryman and defending champion Hifumi Abe in the men’s 66-kilogram division before battering South Korea’s Kim Lim-hwan in a politically charged final.
While Abe was denied a hat-trick of world titles, his younger sister Uta — the poster girl of Japanese judo — retained her crown in the women’s 52-kilo class by dispatching Russian Natalia Kuziutina in just 28 seconds.
Japan dominated the 2018 world championships in Baku, capturing eight of the 15 gold medals available, and will be chasing a similar haul at the 2020 Olympics on home soil.
They came into the competition having won a total of 354 world championship medals, 153 of them gold — more than double the tally of their nearest rivals France.
A question mark remains over how Japan’s judoka will cope with the suffocating pressure of competing at home but many of those fears were dispelled by the swagger shown by Abe and Maruyama.
Maruyama, who had broken the pain barrier to beat Hifumi Abe in a barnstorming semi-final, dished out a beating to Kim in a gold medal match played out against the backdrop of a simmering diplomatic row between Japan and South Korea.
– Rag doll –
After an ill-tempered final, the 26-year-old delivered the coup de grace by tossing his Korean opponent over his shoulder like a rag doll to complete an emotional ippon victory that sparked raucous cheers from a packed home crowd.
“It’s been a difficult road to come this far,” said a tearful Maruyama after bagging his first world title.
“I’ve struggled more than most fighters, so this is a big win for me. But the goal is to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics so I’ve got to pick myself up and go again.”
Hifumi Abe looked inconsolable after losing a battle of attrition against Maruyama as he was left staring up at the rafters with a black eye and choking back tears.
A bronze-medal win over Italy’s Manuel Lombardo did little to soften the blow for Abe, who had been tipped for gold again this week.
Uta Abe looked glum watching her brother’s semi-final defeat but took her annoyance out on the hapless Kuziutina, who strutted into the arena jutting out her jaw in a show of defiance only to be dumped on her back within half a minute.
Abe, who crushed Kosovo’s 2016 Rio Olympic champion Majlinda Kelmendi in the semi-finals, won by ippon — judo’s equivalent of a knockout — and was immediately mobbed by autograph-hunters before she even had time to celebrate.
“To win the title in Tokyo is awesome,” said the 19-year-old crowd favourite.
“Beating Kelmendi gave me a lot of confidence and the home support really provided a lift.”