A colleague told us once that Romanian Larisa Kiss deserves a monument. We do not agree; she deserves at least two. Larisa is the first face, always friendly, who welcomes the new ones. She is the nerve centre of an organisation with many keys. She plays them all. She is the person in direct and permanent contact with the national federations and the International Olympic Committee has no secrets from her. Larisa is the eyes and ears of President Marius Vizer and for that you have to know the ground you are treading. She knows everything and everyone. She is a professional from head to toe and knows how to work it as a job and also becoming personal counsellor when things get ugly. She is involved in all projects, which means that she has a global vision of judo beyond the competitive aspect. This is the first monument.
The second is her direct participation in programmes as essential as equality, childhood and the environment, which the International Judo Federation develops and applies because it considers them vital for the construction of a better world and, if this does not deserve a second monument, then no-one can aspire to just one.
Matthias is a German with a sense of humour, so everyone sees that the judo family breaks clichés. He is a judoka and computer expert. He is responsible for the international federation's IT team, which is to say, the one in charge of making it possible to work during tournaments with a fast and secure internet connection, the one who lays and removes the cables, scrutinises the airwaves, watches the signal and keeps an eye out for the contests. He is a man who, when everything has been said in a meeting, always comes up with something new. In short, he is a guarantee.
Since we're talking about security, we also have Jack. The British man is the head of the camera team, those who record, edit and save the images that the whole world can watch. He has six people with him who carry out reports, interviews and photos, which feed both social networks and the media with content. As if this were not enough, Jack is also the director the live broadcast. He never answers that something is impossible to do and always finds a solution to any problem. In addition, he is also a judoka.
If you had to make a summary of this special season, with just a few tournaments, but all essential, what would it be?
The first answer comes from Larisa. Now you will understand what we meant when we talked about a global vision.
“I have not attended competitions since the pandemic began, as my role is not essential for running the competitions. However, I was very happy to contribute as much as I could in their preparations and for me personally, there is one important conclusion: we are the best team! I am proud of the work that the IJF has done, of the courage and trust that our President had in us and I hope we did not disappoint the judo family. Many other sports struggled to have any competition and I understand that, because it is quite complicated, with conditions changing daily and new challenges arising when one least expects them. I would also highlight the character of our judo family, of all judokas and coaches who followed the rules and kept each other safe. It is a great example of humanity and true friendship and respect, in line with the judo moral code which we are all guided by.”
We have already commented on Matthias, that he always brings something new to the debate. Here it is.
“As the pandemic situation is obviously difficult for everyone, we saw a lot of different ways of reacting to it. I am proud that the IJF, as a governing body, reacted quickly and with a very responsible strategy and protocol for how to proceed with the events. Making things possible again, even with arranging charter flights where normal connections had not been possible.
In order to keep the judo community active at the grassroots level as well, judo projects like fit.ijf.org or ‘Be a Climate Champion’ and many more things were initiated by a very active Media Team. We can also mention the sophisticated Covid-Management system from IT, which was developed to assist the necessary procedures for keeping the events going. Of course we would have loved to have more judo possible, but under the circumstances I think the IJF reacted very proactively and proficiently.”
Perhaps it is due to professional context, but the point is that Jack pays attention to the details, processes the information and then shares his conclusions with an analysis so brilliant that it prompts us to ask more questions.
“It has been the most unpredictable season I have ever seen. The good thing is that we have seen many new faces on the podium, people who work hard but who, despite their efforts, had not obtained good results or medals before, such as Grigori Minaskin from Estonia. It is a good change because they are judoka who have been on the circuit for many years and no-one was expecting them in the final block. This shows that the pandemic has affected everyone but not everyone has adapted to the new circumstances. It is interesting to note that many of those who were used to winning have not adapted to the new reality in the same way as those who were used to losing. All this is judo, adapting not only to the adversary but to the circumstances.”
What do you think will happen in Japan? Tell us your forecasts.
We also have already said that Larisa is the nerve center of the IJF, with full access. That explains her next answer.
“I am working closely with all the institutions involved in the preparations of this unique edition of the Olympic Games. I know very well the efforts that are made by the IOC, Tokyo 2020 and all international federations and national Olympic committees. Our regular schedule and preparation timelines were completely turned upside down and there are many challenges and a very unstable global health situation, which makes all the operations even more complex than before. Tokyo 2020 will be very special and while there are many restrictions and in general, people from athletes to officials and sports fans around the world, will have a different, more restricted experience, I believe there will be a very special atmosphere. So many people, from so many parts of the world will all work for the same goal: to deliver an excellent Olympic Games, in spite of all the hardships, giving athletes the possibility to shine, fulfil their dreams and harvest the fruits of their lifetime of work.”
Matthias gets straight to the point and combines the work aspect with his personal predictions.
“Going to Japan means always two things for me: 1. Professional organisation on all levels and 2. The dominance of Japanese athletes. For the first part I have no doubt that we will see the same high level of organisation. For the second part we know of course that the Olympics has its own rules: favourites failing first round, while players whom no-one had on the list end up becoming Olympic champion. The form on the day is crucial and even more important is which of the players can handle best the enormous pressure this event creates. For me it is always the nicest if the medal table in the end shows up with 14 different countries winning the 14 gold medals, but nevertheless I think we will find Japan and France (having four women currently ranked number one) on top of the medal table.”
We have to stop Jack because he can talk for hours and, unfortunately, we don't have enough space.
“A year ago I would have said that Japan would win 7 or 8 gold medals. Now I have my doubts. First of all, it is a team that has barely competed in the last twelve months. There is a possibility that their performance will decline because of this additional season that they were not prepared for and we will also see how they withstand the pressure of fighting at home. Some of their best judoka may not perform at the same level as the expectation. For example, we have hardly seen Ono Shohei or Harasawa Hisayoshi. The same can be said of Mukai Shoichiro. As for Aaron Wolf, what we saw in Turkey was not very convincing. It will be interesting to see if they peak at the right time. On the other hand, they are not the only ones. Some of those who were world champions in 2019, such as Daria Bilodid, Lukas Krpalek, Sagi Muki or Jorge Fonseca, have had an erratic trajectory since then. We will see if they are able to recover the form that allowed them to win in the same place where the Games will be held.
From France I will say that the women's and men's teams have nothing to do with each other. Women are much better now and I think Romane Dicko will win the gold. I'm glad that Margaux Pinot is going to Tokyo because, after many years as number two, she will finally have her chance and they have a chance to win. I think Clarisse Agbegnenou will also be an Olympic champion. Right now, her only rival is herself. If she forgets her defeat in Rio, she will win and I will be happy for her, but I will be sorry for Japan’s Tashiro Miku because, if Clarisse were not there, Tashiro would already be multiple world champion. She is the best runner up on the circuit.
Finally, I want to talk about the Georgian, Varlam Liparteliani, because he has been one of my favourite judoka in the last ten years. He has an incredible record but he has never won gold, always silver, in major events. In the end, it all comes down to one question: how many judoka will fail because they have not known how to adapt to the new circumstances.”
Who do you think is going to surprise you in Tokyo?
Here we enter a delicate terrain, that of choosing someone or anticipating a detail or a surprise. Larisa is prudent, but she also dares to put forward a name and not the one that many perhaps expected. That's the surprise and that's why we like it.
“To be honest, I am not good at predicting and I don't like to, because I think the surprise element is one of the beauties of sport in general and of judo in particular. However, I can tell you that I expect a great performance from the Japanese athletes and I believe they will all be in top shape. If I have to pick an athlete, I would say that in the women's competition, lately I have been impressed by Shirine Boukli, the French judoka at -48kg who is very fierce and brave. Her judo is explosive and I think she has also the mental strength to surprise the favourites of this category. In the men's competition, although I admire many judoka, I must confess that I am looking forward to seeing the -81kg category, which is very unpredictable and with many high quality judoka. It will be a special day, charged with a special emotion, also due to the amazing story of Sagi Muki and Saeid Mollaei, which I am so fond of.
Finally, for me the most exciting day I am waiting for, is the Olympic Team event on the last day. As we know, this is a premiere in the history of our sport and I hope it will be at least spectacular. Oh and one more thing, one of our special guests in Tokyo will be Mr. Klaus Glahn, Olympic judo medalist at the first Olympic judo competition in Tokyo, in 1964. I hope he will enjoy this experience and that the long way our sport has come since then, will make him happy and proud to be part of the judo family.”
We already said about Matthias that he likes numbers and has a sense of humour.
“I only know that one beauty of our sport is that surprises are not only possible, but highly possible. With the 386 judoka taking part in the Olympics we will have 2^428 = 6931674235302037148946035460357709258591092688439 5414379261989515365532695140640575999360152603489 452434780274035089295724359456 possible different final sheets, with different outcomes! Not so small a number for surprises!”
Time is running out and we ask Jack to focus on one category and his answer does not disappoint us.
“Teddy Riner. Everyone is wondering if he will achieve his third Olympic title. For me everything will depend on the draw. That will be the key because Teddy is not seeded to begin with. He is probably the most unbelievable unseeded player in judo history, which means that he can face the top of the world ranking from the first round. There aren't many who can beat Teddy, but there are a few. I would bet on the Russian, Inal Tasoev. It can also happen that one of them eliminates Riner and then loses in the next round and it can also happen that Riner wins as almost everyone thinks. Everything revolves around Riner, but yes, the key will be in the draw.”