With eight athletes qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games, Italy has entered the big leagues. While the team is preparing to fly to Japan, with their departure scheduled for 16th July, we asked Francesco Bruyère, one of the coaches of the delegation, for his thoughts about the athletes and how he has managed his role in recent years.
Francesco Bruyère

"Even if we had two medals in Rio, with Odette Giuffrida winning silver at -52kg and Fabio Basile taking the gold medal at -66kg, we didn't have a big team in Brazil. We were actually scared that after Rio we wouldn't perform because we didn't have the reservoir to build a strong squad. That's why one year prior to the 2016 Games we started to work hard to prepare the future. So today, I can say that we are happy with this selection of athletes who will represent Italy in Tokyo. The fact is that at the end of the last Olympic cycle team Italy was pretty old. We needed to include young competitors and that's what we did."

In order to develop the potential of the team a Japanese expert, Kioshi Murakami, was hired as technical director, "Murakami started some really good work with the young ones back in 2015 and a couple of years later we had our first success with three junior world champions. It didn't take too long for the team to perform. Murakami changed a lot in a short period of time. I can say that it was not easy. He comes from Japan and we are Mediterraneans, from a latin culture but all the athletes responded perfectly and understood that his method was the right one if they wanted to reach podia on the international level. From the beginning Murakami brought discipline and strategy. We started to work very hard on the tatami, of course, but also around it, to organise everything."

The changes were not long to be seen, "We started to go to to Japan in winter and in summer for long training camps. Day by day we could see the improvement and quickly we saw the emulation between the old generation of athletes and the young ones. Since the beginning, our goal was Tokyo 2020. All the other results were steps; important steps of course, but it's after Tokyo that we'll be able to evaluate the results. In recent years we obtained many medals on the World Judo Tour and with different athletes. For us, having those medals is something quite new. Italy has always been a judo country, but not like that, with consistency. We are conscious that many nations look at us now."

Team Italy

Being observed and studied is actually not a bad thing, since it proves that the work is paying off, "We have a new team. A lot of people didn't expect us to reach that level but now we want more Olympic medals. I can't say how many medals we will get in Tokyo. In competition everything can happen but I know that everyone of our athletes has the capacity to be on the podium. So, 8 medals would be ideal. 

You know, we've worked so hard during these years. Our athletes suffered and I saw some of them crying from time to time, but they know that all the effort will be rewarded. We never had that many athletes qualified before. In Rio Fabio was a surprise for every one, including us, but now I can say that we have eight potential surprises. What is sure is that we are stronger than in Rio."

With such an extended and difficult qualification period, the road to Tokyo was really long, "It was really five difficult years. The way was incredibly long and I can't even remember everything that happened since Rio in 2016. We are all tired, of course because of the pandemic and for many other reasons, but we have now reached a point where we need to deliver and try everything to get those medals."

The Covid crisis hit Italy pretty hard, "Last year we were one of the first countries to be hit by the virus and it was really bad in Italy but I believe that it made us stronger. Our athletes and the whole Federation fought to get past it. We did it! The situation in the country is way better and our athletes, especially the young ones, learned how to deal with such a challenge. We had to adapt the preparation for the Games, because it was too dangerous to fly abroad, so we did the last part of the preparation in Italy. We gathered together 70 athletes, young and less young. We have a lot of sparring partners, many of whom will be the next generation, ready for Paris 2024. The level is very high. To have in the same group Olympic athletes and ready-to-be-on-top ones, creates a special atmosphere. Odette and Fabio play an important role, because they have the experience but even they are still young. Both are only 26 years old and they can still be performing for a while."

For safety reasons the whole Italian team is in bubble and has been for long time, "Covid gave us extra motivation. Now the athletes are hungry for the Games and for medals. They want those Olympic Games to happen. We asked a lot from them and as I said, it was hard. I asked them to always go beyond their expected capacities. I can see the motivation in their eyes, 'I have to win, I must win.’ It’s real.”

The mixture between old and young athletes is maybe one of the secrets of Italy, even if the approach is special, "Yes, we created a formula based on different generations of competitors, but when you see them, they all look as one. We ask the same from all of them. They are growing together. The fact is that the more experienced judoka are supporting the young ones, but when they are on the tatami, there is no difference."

On 16th July the whole team will fly to Japan and stay isolated for five days before entering the Olympic village, "We will have five days to acclimatise, with the jet lag and the climate. We are bringing our own training partners because there are no interactions possible with local judoka and then it's going to be Games’ time."

We left Francesco to enjoy a little family time before the Japanese adventure begins, "I am happy and honoured to follow this team. It's a big responsibility. I try my best for them. They are the protagonists. I want them to take the medals that will change their lives."

On 24th July, we will follow Italy and we will see if the strategy put in place back in 2015 pays off. What is sure is that it already did and the cherry on the cake might be the participation of Italy in the mixed team event. 

Team Italy -66 kg LOMBARDO Manuel -73 kg BASILE Fabio -81 kg PARLATI Christian -90 kg MUNGAI Nicholas -48 kg MILANI Francesca -52 kg GIUFFRIDA Odette -63 kg CENTRACCHIO Maria -70 kg BELLANDI Alice

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