Japanese judoka Abe set to shoulder burden of homegrown sport at Tokyo Olympics

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hifumi Abe, right, defeats Joshiro Maruyama in Tokyo in December in the match to fill the Olympic spot in the men’s 66-kilogram class.

At a pep rally for him held by his sponsor Park24 Co., judo star Hifumi Abe minced no words in stating his expectations in his Olympic debut.

“I will win at the Tokyo Olympics overwhelmingly,” said the 23-year-old Abe, who will compete in the men’s 66-kilogram division. “I will go for a gold medal with my aggressive, exciting style of judo.”

Since judo became an official Olympic sport at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Japan has won 39 gold medals. The sport has produced some of the nation’s most dramatic moments in the quadrennial event, from an injured Yasuhiro Yamashita’s emotional victory over Egypt’s Mohamed Ali Rashwan at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to the joy of phenom Ryoko Tamura capturing her elusive first gold in three attempts at Sydney in 2000.

There was also the disaster of the 1988 Seoul Games, where medal favorites went down to defeat one after another, only for Hitoshi Saito to salvage national pride by winning the men’s over-95-kilogram gold in the final match of the competition. “Now I can go back to Japan,” a sobbing Saito said.

The pressure is immeasurable for judoka from the country where the sport originated, in which even a silver medal is considered a defeat.

Abe’s inspiration has long been men’s 60-kilogram legend Tadahiro Nomura. It was in the summer of his first year of elementary school, shortly after he started judo, that Abe watched as Nomura became the first judoka in history to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals with a victory at the 2004 Athens Games. From that point, his objective has been making it to the Olympics.

“Even with people taking it for granted that he would win the gold medal, it’s amazing to actually win three straight,” Abe said. “I want to go beyond him,” he added, raising an audacious goal of four straight golds.

“To do that, first I have to win at the Tokyo Olympics,” he said, fully prepared to shoulder the burden that comes with competing in the homegrown sport.

Abe earned his place on the Olympic team in December last year by winning a grueling one-off playoff with Joshiro Maruyama that lasted 24 minutes and will go down in judo history. The moment he scored the victory with an inside leg trip, he was overcome with emotion. “Everything came pouring out of me at once,” he said.

The 13 other Olympic team members had been announced by February that year, with only the men’s 66-kg class to be decided later between Abe and Maruyama. But soon after, the Tokyo Olympics was postponed for a year.

The use of the dojo was restricted due to the pandemic, and Abe was limited to running. After a ban on training with another person was lifted, he repeatedly practiced with partners who prefer the left-handed collar grip used by Maruyama. He also gained advice from specialists on what to eat to recover quickly after losing weight so that he could give everything in the one-off match.

His frustration increased during the 9½ months of waiting, but “I never lost concentration,” he said.

In April this year, Abe won the title in his first international tournament following his victory over Maruyama. “I feel I have progressed,” he said.

The competition in the men’s 66-kg division at the Tokyo Olympics will be held on July 25, the same day Abe’s younger sister, Uta, will appear in the women judo’s 52-kg class. The two will play an important role in the early stage of the Games to give momentum to the entire Japanese team.

“We want to leave our mark in history as siblings winning golds together,” Abe said. “If I do my judo, I can show the Japanese judo of winning by ippon”

Abe has vowed to achieve his dream of winning a gold medal together with his sister at the Nippon Budokan, the sacred arena where the history of Olympic judo began 57 years ago.