With Decision to Make, Japan's Women With Olympic Berths All Intend to Enter Belgrade Worlds
Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 12:30 By Ken Marantz
TOKYO---Given a difficult choice, all five Japanese women who have already secured berths at the Tokyo Olympics would choose to take on the world prior to the 202One Games.
By a twist of fate, the dates for this year's rescheduled World Championships (Dec. 12-20) in Belgrade perfectly overlapped with the traditional slot on the calendar for the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships (Dec. 17-20).
The Japan federation, trying to set a course in the turbulent seas caused by the coronavirus pandemic, would give the wrestlers the option of choosing which competition they would like to appear.
Olympic champion Sara DOSHO (JPN) finishes a shot during the women's team training camp (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)
On Wednesday, the opening day of a national women's team training camp at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo, defending Olympic champions Risako KAWAI and Sara DOSHO and the three others all said they would decide or are leaning toward appearing at the World Championships.
"I want to take part," said Kawai, who won her third straight world title in September 2019 in Nur-Sultan by winning the gold at 57kg. "I realize the danger with the coronavirus, but thinking about the Olympics, I haven't been in an international tournament since February, so I want to [be in one] once before the Olympics."
This is all contingent, of course, on the World Championships being held in the first place. United World Wrestling is expected to make the final call in early November, a decision that took an additional twist with the recent announcement that the United States will not be sending a team.
For the Japanese wrestlers, it goes even beyond that. The Japanese government currently requires citizens returning from a trip abroad to self-isolate for 14 days. The restriction is about to be relaxed in some cases for business travelers, both Japanese and foreigners, but it is unlikely to apply to the athletes.
"At Narita, they would have to stay at a hotel," said Shigeki NISHIGUCHI, the technical director of the Japan Wrestling Federation, referring to the international airport that services Tokyo. "Or maybe they would wait it out at home. They wouldn't be able to practice."
Nishiguchi said all could be rectified if the government would allow the wrestlers to quarantine at the National Training Center. As a self-contained facility that already operates as an anti-virus bubble, the wrestlers could stay and train as if they were at an extended training camp.
"At the moment, that doesn't look possible," he said. "We're not sure the government will allow it."
The wrestlers themselves are concerned only with what they can control. Normally, the year-ending Emperor's Cup would be the first of two qualifying tournaments for the team to the following year's World Championships. But with all tournaments wiped out by the pandemic, the members of the 2019 team in Nur-Sultan would have the first choice of going to Belgrade.
In Nur-Sultan, Japanese women grabbed Olympic spots in five of the six weight classes, winning one gold, two silvers and one bronze, with one fifth-place finish. The only weight class in which Japan still needs to qualify is 50kg, and two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI will try to make the cut at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Xi'an, China, on March 26-28.
Susaki was among a number of collegians who were absent from the training camp that started Wednesday due to school commitments. As Susaki's situation is different from the confirmed Olympians, her coach, Shoko YOSHIMURA, said she is undecided which tournament she would enter.
"She hasn't decided," Yoshimura said. "She's not at a stage yet where she knows all of the conditions. When those are decided, we'll talk about it and make a decision."
Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) finishes a double leg takedown. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)
For Mayu MUKAIDA, the 2019 world silver medalist at 53kg, there is no debate.
"I'm planning to enter the worlds," Mukaida said. "There was nothing to think about, I'm preparing for the worlds."
Mukaida would have some unfinished business to attend to in Belgrade. She is still stinging from the one-sided loss she was dealt in the final in Nur-Sultan by PAK Yong-Mi (PRK). "I don't know if the North Korean will enter or not, but I'll do what I can to win the gold medal and keep that momentum going up to the Olympics."
Dosho, the Rio Olympic champion and 2017 world champion at 69kg, says she would lean toward entering the World Championships. She finished fifth in Nur-Sultan at 68kg after coming back from a layoff due to shoulder surgery.
In Nur-Sultan, Dosho lost in the third round to eventual champion Tamyra MENSAH-STOCK (USA), but isn't concerned about missing out on a chance to face her again before the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to July 2021.
"If I can face her, it's OK, if I don't, then I'll focus on preparing to be ready at that level for the Olympics," said Dosho, who recently has recovered from a knee injury. "I don't have any big injury, but I have some small issues here and there. I'm keeping in mind avoiding injury as I train."
Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN) tightens her grip on a head lock. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)
Another Japanese wrestler who might benefit from the absence of an American presence in Belgrade is Hiroe MINAGAWA, the world silver medalist at 76kg.
"In my weight class, the American is ranked No. 1 and is the world champion," said Minagawa, referring to Adeline GRAY (USA), who beat her in the final in Nur-Sultan. "It's a shame that she won't be entered. But there are many other strong wrestlers besides her, so it's not so much of a shock that she won't be there, and it means I'll be able to face ones from other countries."
It 's that much-needed exposure to foreign competition that compels Minagawa, who underwent knee surgery in the spring while sports where shut down, to opt to participate in the World Championships over the Emperor's Cup.
"In my case, I want to use the World Championships to come up with measures to take on wrestlers from other countries who have more power, and get back the match feeling after such a long layoff," she said. "There is still [the issue of] my knee. Naturally, the Olympics is the No. 1 [priority]. I have to think how to be in peak condition for the Olympics."
Not surprisingly, Yukako KAWAI, the world bronze medalist at 62kg, would commit to joining older sister Risako on the flight to Belgrade as the two look to win Olympic gold medals together next year on home soil.
"If there is a World Championships, I will enter that," Kawai said. "There is no anguishing over it."
She would naturally aim for a gold in Belgrade, but more as a means to an end. "What I want most is the Olympic gold. Of course I will aim for the title at the World Championships, but more than definitely wanting that, I want to have matches that allow me to find out what I need to work on ahead of the Olympics."
Chances are good that the All-Japan Championships will be held as scheduled. Earlier this month, Japan successfully held its first national-level tournament with the National High School Invitational Championships, which was soon followed by the National Collegiate Greco-Roman Championships.
As a footnote to the high school tournament, the Japan federation and the wrestling division of the All Japan High School Athletic Federation recently announced that, after waiting with bated breath in the two weeks following the end of the competition, there were no reported cases of coronavirus infection among the wrestlers, coaches, officials and staff---about 800 people in all.