It is a draw as predictable as it is explosive because there are two men who spread fear where they tread and a high number of candidates for the title with insufficient classification. In other words, if all the categories have more or less a high percentage of uncertainty, four of them are simply an Egyptian hieroglyph.
Starting with –48kg, the reason is very simple: Daria Bilodid is only 20 years old but she is already a two-time world champion. Until a year ago she was untouchable. Until a year ago she was a huge favourite, perhaps the only one, to reach Olympic gold. However, a year ago, Shirine Boukli broke into the circuit. She is French, two years older than the Ukrainian but when we say that she broke in, it is because she destroyed Bilodid. Boukli went further, because she defeated all the favourites in the category and then faded, so much so that she added a poor seventh place at the World Championships in Budapest, which meant a tenth place in the ranking before the Olympic draw. They say that luck accompanies the intrepid. Ok, we will have to see, because the Tokyo draw has brought a second round contest between Boukli and Bilodid and this is just the beginning.
The whole world was eagerly awaiting the –73kg and + 100kg categories because Ono Shohei and Teddy Riner were not seeded, as if the absolute kings had taken a couple of years off before returning to reign.
At -73kg the Japanese judoka will debut against the Romanian Alezandru Raicu, winner in Tel Aviv. This is a good touchstone, especially to know the state of form of Ono. Then the Turkish fighter Bilal Ciloglu, bronze in Budapest and on a progressive upward curve, has a style that could put Ono in trouble. If everything follows its normal course, though, in the quarter-finals he would have to face his usual rival, Rustam Orujov. The Azerbaijani is number one and surely he was not amused that Ono was thirteenth because Ono was his executioner in the final in Rio and in the final of the 2019 World Championships. In the event of victory, all this would be the preamble to a great career for Ono, before facing, perhaps, the newly released world champion, Lasha Shavdatuashvili. There is a difference between him and the others: the Georgian has won everything and has nothing to lose. The only thing missing is an ippon against Ono and challenges are good for him.
If the Ono thing sounds like crossing the desert, the Riner thing is an Indiana Jones special. It is fair to say it because the Frenchman is looking for his third Olympic title and it will not be easy; he wanted it that way. When he was world number one, because he was the best, he walked through the tournaments slowly, had a gentle first three rounds, sometimes even more, before he got to work. Not now! For the first time, Riner will have to surpass all the big shots in the ranking to be champion. That is new and it excites us and anticipates a category at a level never seen before.
To begin with, he will have to eliminate Austrian Stephan Hegyi, a quality start, before facing Israeli Or Sasson, one of the few who have put him in serious difficulties in the last ten years. Sasson doesn't look the same but it's the Games; you never know! In the quarters he will be joined by, in principle, the world number one, Tamerlan Bashaev. Riner is not used to all the fuss because, in addition, in the semi-finals he may have to face the Georgian Guram Tushishvili, another who was about to beat the Frenchman four years ago. Then, in the final, the Japanese Hisayoshi Harasawa or the Czech Lukas Krpalek are likely to be ready him. All this means that if Riner is Olympic champion, this title will be, without a doubt, the most worked for because never before has there been such a level and never before has the Frenchman started from such a low point on the ranking.
A big little mention for –81kg because that symbolic final that many longed for between Saeid Mollaei and Sagi Muki will not take place. The Iranian-born Mongolian and the Israeli could only face off in the semi-finals. It would be a pleasure for both of them because they are friends, an honour for fans of judo, a victory for lovers of freedom and something normal for judo professionals. They know that this is not about nationalities or politics, no; judo is a fight between two people with the same weapons and the same rules. It is the noblest art because it is at its fairest where there is respect and intelligence. It would be good if they faced each other, but if they cannot, it is because the competition is better and that is also good because judo does not offer privilege to anyone but offers the same opportunities to all. In the end, the best one wins.
All these things are details within an immense Olympic tournament that is announced prodigious. These are tough times and tough conditions, for everyone. We know that judo will rise to the occasion and will set the bar very high. If you don't believe it, check out all our clues.