The postponement of this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games in Japan until 2021 could be a blessing for Great Britain’s judo selectors. Whilst there is inevitably the usual high hopes and expectations for those judoka who will represent Team GB, the recent form and fortunes at major worldwide events is somewhat mixed.
The last such event, the 2019 World Judo Championships also held in Tokyo, were a disappointment from a British perspective with only medal to show from the tournament. Scotland’s Sally Conway took bronze to earn her first-ever World medal in the -70kg category with the third-place win meaning she completed medal success at all major championships, after already making Olympic, European, and Commonwealth podiums beforehand.
But that was as good as it got. From all of the 25 nations involved, Great Britain were in the bottom section of the medal table finishing alongside Germany, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Serbia and Turkey with one single podium place.
Great Britain’s record at Olympic Games level over the years has been equally as sketchy. To date they have won only eighteen Olympic medals in Judo since it was added to the Summer games schedule way back in 1964. Neil Adams is still the most successful British judoka after winning silver in the men’s -71 kg category in 1980 in Moscow, Russia, and again in the men’s -78 kg category in 1984 in Los Angeles, USA.
More recently two members of the 2012 Olympic team claimed medals on home soil at the London games. Callum Howard won silver in the men’s -78 kg category, and Karina Bryant won bronze in the women’s +78 kg category.
So what are the chances of Great British success in Tokyo next year? Recent history and performances tells us there is cause for optimism for British judoka to get amongst the medals, particularly in the women’s events. With the Japanese dominance of all weight categories across both men’s and women’s categories, there is perhaps only an outside chance of striking gold.
Whilst Japan have dominated the medal count in the majority of IJF Grand Prix events in the last two years, British competitors – and particularly the women’s judoka – have chipped away and picked up a variety of medals which to offer grounds for hope. Before the coronavirus pandemic brought sporting action globally to a standstill, January’s International Judo Federation (IJF) Tel Aviv Grand Prix in Israel saw Britain come away with two gold medals. Natalie Powell took the top spot on the podium in the women’s-78kg final whilst Conway did the same by winning the -70kg event. Prior to this, Conway also won gold at the IJF Düsseldorf Grand Prix in Germany in February 2019 which came after claiming similar a few months previous in November 2018 at the Grand Prix event at The Hague, Netherlands.
Powell, who reached the quarter-final stages of the 2016 Rio Games, has also collected a number of supplementary honours without quite reaching the top spot of the podium. Along with Sarah Adlington, she claimed bronze at the Tashkent Grand Prix in September 2019, this after landing silver at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in October 2018 and then another bronze at the 2018 World Judo Masters in Guangzhou, China. The latter was the Welsh judoka’s third Masters medal after also winning a silver in 2015 and a bronze in 2016.
Those performances were a prelude to Powell also winning bronze at the 2017 World Judo Championships in Budapest. On this occasion she was joined by Nekoda Smythe-Davis who won the women’s -57kg bronze at the same event. At the time this was Great Britain’s first world medal since 2010 and the first time that two British female judokas had won world medals at the same event for 16 years which in itself tells its own story.
September 2018 saw 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Smythe-Davis win a silver medal at the World Judo Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. She was looking to become Great Britain’s first world champion since Craig Fallon in 2005 but the silver medal proved the first for Great Britain since 2009. That gold did arrive at the Düsseldorf Grand Slam in 2018 when the Londoner clinched a second Grand Slam gold of her career.
The last British medal success at an IJF event before the enforced break came at the Paris Grand Slam in February with Gemma Howell picking up a bronze in the -70kg Final.
That came after the London 2012 Olympian picked up a Grand Prix gold at the 18th attempt at last July’s Budapest Grand Prix. The victory was not only notable for its golden reward but also for applying pressure on her -70kg teammate and Olympic bronze medallist Conway in the race for the one available place for the Tokyo Games.
Other notable medal performances last year came for Great Britain’s Amy Livesey with a silver in the women’s -63kg final at the Montreal Grand Prix in July, and a bronze for Chelsie Giles at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix September.
Whilst there has been medal success of all kinds for Britain’s women judoka, the same cannot be said for their male counterparts. Aside from Howard’s 2012 Olympic silver, the only notable medal of note in recent years coming last July at the Zagreb Grand Prix thanks to a silver medal for Ashley McKenzie in the men’s -60kg final.
Let’s not forget that the big occasions always draw up a surprise or two and the recent history of Great Britain’s judoka landing medals at major Grand Prix events could easily be translated to podium appearances on the big stage in the coming year.