As is the case for many other sports, the Olympic Games is undoubtedly the pinnacle of a competitive career but the flagship event of each sport is their world championships and judo has both events arriving at a pace.

The prestige, recognition and attention that comes with becoming a world or Olympic champion, or even medallist, is unmatched. For the Olympic Games specifically, athletes endure a brutal two-year qualification period in pursuit of their ultimate goals: first to call themselves an Olympian and second, reserved for a fortunate few, to call themselves an Olympic medallist.

Andrea Carlino (ITA) at the Qazaqstan Barysy Grand Slam 2024

The Qazaqstan Barysy Grand Slam 2024 is the penultimate IJF event of the qualifying period for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and as such is one of the last opportunities for the athletes to pick up significant Olympic ranking points, either to safeguard their qualifying position or to ensure that they still have a chance of qualifying at all.

Unsurprisingly, at this late stage of qualifying, where the Olympic ranking list is approaching its final form, the pressure but also the motivation to succeed for those in the latter category is higher than ever. For some, the pressure causes capitulation. For others, the motivation sees them ascend to new peaks. In Astana we have had the pleasure of seeing several athletes reach new highs in their level of performance, while others returned to their former glory.

Luukas Saha (FIN) battles with Murad Chopanov (AIN) in the -66kg semi-final in Astana

At -60kg, we saw Andrea Carlino (ITA) win his first ever grand slam medal at the 14th time of asking. After winning his first-round match in just 11 seconds, the 27-year-old showed tremendous spirit in the following contests. He defeated the winner of the Dushanbe Grand Slam 2024 Muhammadsoleh Quvatov (TJK) after a back-and-forth contest which saw him escape a hold and have a throw initially given ippon, only for it to be rescinded due of a leg grab. He also overcame the fifth seed Michel Augusto (BRA), showing great composure to break through the Brazilian’s defences, score waza-ari halfway through the contest and hold on for the victory.

There was a similar story for Luukas Saha (FIN) at -66kg. The 25-year-old also won his first grand slam medal, a bronze, after nine previous attempts. Not only did he score ippon with positive actions in all of his four victories, using both tachi-waza and ne-waza techniques, he only picked up two penalties across his five contests. He defeated two of the top seeds on his way to bronze and displayed focus, tactical nous and skill, the level of which we have not seen from him before.

Katarina Kristo (CRO) celebrates with her coach after winning gold at -63kg

Katarina Kristo (CRO) is no stranger to a World Judo Tour podium, having three medals to her name already prior to the event. She is one of many athletes locked in an internal selection battle for the Games. Despite her previous success, she trailed her compatriot Iva Oberan in the Olympic rankings and found herself outside the qualification places. After an early exit in the Dushanbe Grand Slam 2024 last week, she was a different person in Astana, winning all of her contests by ippon and defeating Oberan and double world silver medallist Andrea Leski (SLO) in the semi-final and final, respectively.

At -81kg, there was a return to winning ways for Sharofiddin Boltaboev (UZB). Although he was already a 7-time grand slam medallist ahead of the event, the Uzbek athlete has only managed one World Tour medal in the Olympic qualification period and as a result, his continental qualifying position became very precarious. The 28-year-old re-discovered his mojo in Astana, defeating former world medallists Dominic Ressel (GER) and Sotaro Fujiwara (JPN), and Rio 2016 Olympic champion Khasan Khalmurzaev all by ippon on his way to gold.

Sharofiddin Boltaboev (UZB) after winning his semi-final at -81kg

These results moved the medallists one step closer to their Olympic goals but there is another goal, one which the athletes hold just as dear: becoming world champion. Soon they will have the chance to do just that, as the flagship event of the IJF World Judo Tour, the Abu Dhabi World Championships 2024, will begin in just a week’s time. The world’s best will assemble in the Emirati capital and stake their claim for that coveted title. With so many ranking points on offer there, achieving one goal, that of a world medal, could have profound implications for the other goal. Despite the performances of the aforementioned athletes in Kazakhstan, nothing is certain.

What is certain is that we can expect many more outstanding performances, shock results and high-quality judo entertainment as the athletes give everything they have to make their world championship and Olympic dreams a reality. As judo fans, we can’t ask for much more.

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