Japan, homeland of judo, gets Beijing jitters

Aug. 07, 2008, 9:40 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Questioning the prowess of Japan's Olympic judo team is like insulting the beauty of Mount Fuji.

Four years ago, Japan won a record eight gold medals in Athens and six members of the team now in Beijing have already stood atop the podium.

Maybe it's the pressure - the responsibility of upholding the national honor on the international stage - but the team that is the pride of Japan is hardly brimming with confidence.

"You never know what will happen," Maki Tsukada, the 2004 women's heavyweight gold medalist, said Thursday. "My priorities are really just to fight each fight. You can't think about what's going to happen in the finals. You have to get there first."

Defending champion or not, Tsukada is an underdog.

China's Tong Wen, who has won six straight world championships, is where most of the spotlight is focused, especially considering the hometown backing she will have once the judo competition gets going Saturday.

In fact, the judo medal-winner pool is all over the place.

Brazil is right up there, and so is Cuba. In teenager Teddy Riner, France has the favorite in the men's heavyweight class. The United States has its first real shot at women's gold from middleweight Ronda Rousey of Santa Monica, Calif., who won the silver at last year's world championships. Even reclusive North Korea is fielding a woman who could well outclass Japan's entry.

The Japanese would prefer not to talk about that.

"Results are what count," said team leader Kazuo Yoshimura. "I think that we have an excellent team, and I'm sure that they will come through."

Ryoko Tani, the star of the team, acknowledged that getting off to a good start will make a big difference.

Tani, who won gold in Sydney and Athens and took two silvers before that, will be fighting on the first day of the competition, when the extra-lightweights take the mat. Japan has vowed to win both golds being contested that day.

"We got off well in Athens, and that helped," Tani said. "I'm hoping to give the team a little momentum boost."

But the once-invincible Tani, now 33, has perhaps seen better years herself.

After North Korea's Kye Sun Hui broke her 84-match winning streak in 1996, she has come through in most big tournaments, but has devoted much more of her energies to pursuits outside the ring.

She is married to a pro baseball player, is one of Japan's top sports celebrities, and is competing in her first Olympics since having a son three years ago.

She qualified for the games on the merit of having won last year's world championships, when Japan won a low of only three golds. But, in April, she was unable to win the Japan national title.

Still, Tani said the extras in her life have added to her determination.

"I am just beginning to understand how powerful motherhood is," she said. "I think it is making me stronger."

Her outlook on the competition is pretty much the same as that of the Japan team itself.

"There are rivals from all over the world watching for an opening," she said. "I don't know if I could single out just one. If I did, I guess I would have to say it is me."