Judo power base shifting west as Asia loses grip
At Athens, Japan won eight out of 14 gold medals, but in Beijing they have only three titles.
Beijing: Japan's failure to dominate judo at the Beijing Olympic Games in the manner they did four years ago in Athens has signalled a changing of the guard in the ancient martial sport.
In Greece the Japanese achieved a previously unheard of domination in the sport by winning eight out of a possible 14 gold medals, as well as five of the seven women's titles.
But since then they have fallen from their lofty perch, while still managing to peer down on all other nations.
They won just three gold medals (out of a possible 16) at each of the two World Championships since Athens and with just one day - and two categories - to go to the end of the Beijing Games, they have just three golds this time around.
They still top the medals table, as they invariably almost always do, but there is still a sense of failure surrounding the team.
What's more, there are now a new breed of nations rising up to challenge the traditional pecking order.
At these Games two central Asian nations, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and their Turkic cousins Azerbaijan won their first ever Olympic judo medals - in Tajikistan's case it was a first ever Olympic medal in any sport.
Added to that, Mongolia claimed their first ever gold and Algeria, who have won two medals here, broke their duck as well as that of any African woman in the sport.
However, it is the success of the central Asian nations that is most interesting, particularly given their otherwise low profiles.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had both already won Olympic judo medals leaving Turkmenistan as the only central Asian country still to climb an Olympic judo podium.
Askhat Zhitkeyev on Thursday became the first Kazakh to achieve this honour in the men's -100kg and afterwards explained that it was to be expected.
"We're from central Asia in the midst of Asia and the Orient where major competitions and tournaments take place," he said.
"Therefore we've been able to make a lot of progress in the judo world and our younger generations are growing up with this and I'm sure they'll do us proud at the next Olympics."
The Uzbeks and Kazakhs have long had a growing reputation in the sport but now it seems that many other countries are transferring skills garnered in native wrestling styles to suit judo.
And it is not just in central Asia that things are moving forward.
Already 48 judo medals have been handed out in Beijing and participants from an incredible 24 different countries have won them.
Tellingly, those countries don't even include traditional powers Britain - who have been on the decline for many years - and more surprisingly Russia.
Japan may still lead the way but the gap is getting ever smaller and the number of hulking shadows over their shoulders are getting ever greater.
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