The end of the Olympic qualification period approaches more and more rapidly. Soon, after the World Judo Championships Hungary 2021, the athletes who will take part in the Tokyo Games will be announced. Thus the time of assessment is also emerging. We asked several personalities of judo to tell us about what they'll remember from this period, one so different from anything we have known to date.
Kazan Grand Slam

Vladimir Barta is the Head Sport Director of the IJF and he is a keen connoisseur of the Olympic qualification system. "I can say that in judo we were lucky. Normally the Olympic qualification runs for two years, but no matter what happens, we have a quota of 386 athletes who can qualify and that's our strength. When the pandemic started, we also started to negotiate with the IOC and we rapidly came to the agreement that we would prolong the qualifiers. After last year's lockdown, we decided to resume the World Judo Tour in Budapest and since then we promised the events would take place and they have. Thanks to the continental unions, we also added the continental events.

There is something very special with judo and it's related to our education. We put a lot of emphasis on education, but this is not only words, this is action as well. When we decided to resume in Budapest, we had to put a very strict protocol in place and because we accept rules and we respect them, everybody followed the measures, without discussion, because everybody knew that it was the only way to resume judo. We are educated that way.

I want also to say thank you to all the organisers who put so much energy and effort in to achieving our goals. The examples are numerous, such as Israel, which was locked down at the time of the event, but still welcomed delegations from all over the world to participate in the grand slam. This is also the case here in Kazan, with the Russian Judo Federation and the Tatarstan Judo Federation being able to deliver a great competition within a few weeks. This was a huge effort."

As a Sport Director, Vladimir Barta also has a lot to say about the judo itself, "The Olympic qualification was particularly long, if we take into consideration that we had to extend it. To stay at the top for three years is a task of endurance, but in the end, there are not so many surprises. The World Ranking List is a good indication of the level of the athletes and most of the time it is respected. After the World Championships, in a few weeks from now, we might have some surprises at the bottom of the ranking list, where a few points might decide who will go to the Games or not, but this is marginal.

After the 2020 lockdown, everybody was a bit worried about the level that our athletes would deliver, but generally speaking they all came back quite fresh and hungry to compete. The high level was on pause, but since Budapest, it has been continuing again. Of course the postponement of the Games was not friendly for those who had planned to finish their career in Tokyo, but for many others it was good news. Take Teddy Riner, who was not at his best last year. He came back on top of everyone this year and was unbeatable at the World Masters. In Tokyo, the athletes will be at their full capacity."

Florin Daniel Lascau totally agrees with Vladimir Barta's analysis and added, "This Olympic cycle was definitely not regular. Normally we have four years between two Games but this time we had five and it will be three until Paris. This changes a lot of things in terms of calendar and preparation for the nations. Usually after any Olympic Games, for a couple years, the federations present young and more experienced athletes and some of them also use that time to change category. Then as soon as the Olympic qualification approaches, a large group of competitors starts to narrow down to a more accurate group of athletes who can enter the quota. Here, we have now noticed that many delegations are already mixing generations because they have to think about the upcoming events, but also about Paris 2024 already. Since we started the World Judo Tour again, many new names appeared and that is very refreshing. National federations understood that they need to ride two horses at the same time: one which is looking at the short term and the second one to the future."

The vision of Jean-Luc Rougé, IJF Secretary General, is focussed more on what he has to do to support all national federations, "The context over the past months was really difficult for everyone. We had to accompany and help many countries to get through the consequences of the pandemic. The general secreatariat has been fully dedicated to that mission and I consider ourselves like a mechanic that needed to perform at its best, to be present for our member federations. I am really happy to see that judo, especially at the international level, didn't stop. I think that we are an example for other sports and even for the International Olympic Committee, that can see that we were able to find solutions and to implement them. Our team is at the service of our members and we dedicate all our time to them. We adapted to a situation that was unusual and we proved that it was possible."

When we talk of possibilities, we turn to Lisa Allan, IJF Events Director, as it has been her teams working tirelessly for many months to make every event happen, "Obviously the postponement of the Games led to a huge amount of logistics needing to be solved. We can think about all the staff involved with the organisation of the Tokyo Games, having to work an extra year and integrate totally new protocols. There are still issues to be solved but I'm sure that this edition of the Olympic Games will be totally special. It will be unique in many aspects. There will be limited socialising, no foreign spectators for instance. This is how it is and we will do our utmost to deliver the best judo event ever. As a judo family we are very adaptable. We will do everything for our athletes. You know, back in March 2020, nobody would have believed that in March 2021, we would still be dealing with the Covid pandemic, but this is how it is and in judo at least, we can now say that it's the new normality. Considering that, I am very happy that our President, Marius Vizer, had the courage to stand up and put in place measures that could ensure that judo will continue to develop. We started having events again at the right time because now we have to live with this situation."

The four, all judoka at heart, are resolutely optimistic but they are also realistic. They don't hide the difficulties but they also show that beyond the hard times that the whole world has been going through, there are possibilities, new opportunities and hope. The athletes who are competing in Kazan this week are here to prove it and show that judo can adapt. Judo will always adapt.

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