Fighting back: will British judo's drastic overhaul work?
A decade of under-performance at the Olympic Games has forced British judo to take a gamble.
The British squad returned from the Beijing Games in 2008 without a medal, one of the few major disappointments of an otherwise successful outing for Team GB, to face radical alterations to the way their sport worked.
In came a new head coach and sweeping changes to their preparation ahead of London 2012, drastically limiting the number of competitions in which they fought in favour of more time spent training.
Some of the team are delighted with the post-Beijing arrangements, but fewer tournaments has meant fewer ranking points for many up-and-coming British stars, who now face a tough time against the top seeds whenever they do turn up.
One member of the team, Sarah Clark, told me late last year that Britons were "getting hammered in the rankings" which in turn made it difficult for them to prove themselves.
Results at this week's World Championships, in Tokyo, will be an early indicator of how successful judo's reinvention has been - and other sports will be looking on.
"We're making all the improvements we want to see," Margaret Hicks, British Judo's performance director, told me as the team gathered ahead of the trip to Japan.
"We've tried to avoid putting players in for lots of competitions early on in the Olympic cycle. Now we need to start getting strategic and, after the World Championships, we have to start getting some players to pick up ranking points."
The plan, introduced alongside Frenchman Patrick Roux's appointment as head coach a month after Beijing, is fairly simple: hold back Britain's judo players from a large number of tournaments in which they would otherwise have fought, in order to maximise training time and development while minimising the risk of injury and burn-out.
With that, you also minimise the chance of earning precious ranking points, but that loss is catered for on two counts.
Firstly, Britain has received a generous allocation of 14 places at the 2012 Olympics as the host nation - one for each event, the maximum GB could have earned anyway. So ranking points, used to determine everyone else's eligibility for the London Games, won't help any more Britons get there.
Secondly, though ranking points determine the initial seeding at competitions (hence Britain's players, sometimes bereft of points, are currently susceptible to facing their toughest rivals in the opening rounds), the ranking list used for London only takes into account the past two years of events up to May 2012.
Hence Hicks wants to ramp things up now that ranking points earned will go directly towards the 2012 event. But how easy is that on the athletes? Can you flick competitive edge on and off like a light switch? Can Britain's judo players, some starting from scratch in the rankings, go out and claw their way up the ladder in the next two years?
"It has had a big effect," said Karina Bryant, who competes in the women's +78kg category.
Bryant, 31, goes to Tokyo as a defending world silver medallist and, with Euan Burton, leads the British team in terms of experience and achievements. She is ranked 16th in her category, with 342 ranking points, of which 150 came from that last silver medal - a hefty chunk. (By comparison, the +78kg world number one Lucija Polavder, of Slovenia, has 1,130 points. The PDF file listing all the world rankings, published regularly by the International Judo Federation, is well worth a read. I've picked out the British ones at the bottom of this blog.)
"Probably the majority of the team going into the World Championships are going without a ranking. But it's not London - we're trying to prepare with the bigger picture in sight," Bryant added.
"It's not going to be the best, going into the competition without a ranking, but if you want to win you have to beat whoever you're going to have to fight anyway. If you have a hard first fight then your second or third maybe won't be so hard: you've got to get on with it.
"For me, it's perfect. I've got a lot of experience behind me so at the Europeans and Worlds I want to be performing, and hitting them as targets on the way. It is hard for me because it's something new to see the bigger picture instead of always trying to perform every year.
"But I'm getting a lot of confidence from it, even though I'm possibly not getting the results I want or fighting as much as I want - I can still see the progression and that's what I need."
Others, like Clark, are less convinced. And, at British Judo's high performance centre in Dartford, Clark's team-mate Faith Pitman admitted she hasn't been a huge fan of this approach.
"I find the more competitions I do, the better I get and the more attuned to competitions I get," the Todmorden 25-year-old told me. She is ranked 43rd in the women's -63kg category, and her 118 ranking points would have to be almost quadrupled to break into the world's top 10.
"Having said that, with the new rule changes and stuff, it's been quite interesting for me to have more of an overview of my training and adapt my judo.
"There are good and bad points. I think it's working for me now - but we'll see, won't we? Hopefully, over the next six months things will really come into place."
This is by no means the first time in recent years that judo has confronted upheaval head-on. Internationally, the IJF changed a number of rules at the start of 2010 (and this Worlds marks the first such tournament to allow two competitors per country in each event, doubling the field). Domestically, this is one of several initiatives the British are trying in a quest for Olympic success.
Two years ago, my colleague Matt Slater found a similar split in the camp over plans to relocate the entire elite team, including Scottish duo Clark and Burton, to Dartford. It was notable that, while I met up with the majority of the team in Dartford ahead of their flight to Tokyo, both Clark and Burton had remained in Edinburgh.
But a willingness to openly raise big issues around where and how to train, or where and when to compete, and make critical changes accordingly is one sometimes sadly lacking in Olympic sports.
In taking such bold steps to address a lack of performance, judo follows in the footsteps of the likes of British Cycling, who adopt a similar approach to competitions - using them as tools for Olympic success only where necessary.
Other sports like handball or volleyball cannot afford to take that risk and throw themselves into all the events they can get, each of which presents invaluable exposure to a higher level of competition. Certainly, when I met them earlier this summer, the GB men's handball team could only talk of their desire for more time on court.
Judo's gear change may yet help elevate them to the ranks of failing sports which turned themselves into Olympic success stories. Only time, and results from Tokyo onwards, will tell.
So you know what to look out for over the next week, Hicks expects her team to produce four to six top-eight finishes at the World Championships, and that would meet the targets set by funding body UK Sport. Bryant and Pitman agree that two to three medals is a realistic ambition for the British.
"Maybe it's good for the youngsters to get used to this approach early on," Bryant concluded
"I don't think they've got anything to fret about, they're in good hands and they have to have confidence in the people they're working with.
"I think it's working well and if they see the likes of me being confident with the programme, maybe the players who don't have as much confidence will settle down a bit, get some hard work done and reap the rewards next year and in 2012."
The fight ahead
How the British team for Tokyo fares in the world rankings
Most British judo players are beginning to pick up ranking points now that we are into the two-year period which counts towards London 2012, so the situation is not as dire as it may once have looked.
For example, Euan Burton (men's -81kg) is now ranked fifth in the world, but he was 44th just over a year ago. (You can view the July 2009 world rankings for comparison.)
Karina Bryant, now the world number 16, did not feature among the 48 ranked women in the +78kg category in July 2009 (though team-mate Sarah Adlington was 43rd; she is now 21st).
Rankings obviously fluctuate for various reasons, not least form, injury and strength of opposition, and it is worth remembering that the rankings themselves are quite new: they were introduced in January 2009.
However, the effect of the British approach to competitive judo in this period is noticeable in most instances.
Current world rankings from the International Judo Federation
(Available in full as a PDF file, correct as of 6 September 2010
-48kg: 642 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Tomoko Fukumi, Japan (1,640 pts)
Kimberley Renicks - 45th, 102 pts
Kelly Edwards - 82nd, 28 pts
-52kg: 540 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Misato Nakamura, Japan (1,860 pts)
Sophie Cox - no ranking*
-57kg: 650 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Kaori Matsumoto, Japan (1,730 pts)
Gemma Howell - 91st, 30 pts
-63kg: 468 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Yoshie Ueno, Japan (1,710 pts)
Sarah Clark - 29th, 188 pts
Faith Pitman - 43rd, 118 pts
-70kg: 542 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Anett Meszaros, Hungary (1,268 pts)
Sally Conway - 22nd, 300 pts
Megan Fletcher - 104th, 16 pts
-78kg: 598 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Celine Lebrun, France (1,308 pts)
Gemma Gibbons - 84th, 32 pts **
Scarlett Woolcock - no ranking **
+78kg: 762 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Lucija Polavder, Slovenia (1,130 pts)
Karina Bryant - 16th, 342 pts
Sarah Adlington - 21st, 310 pts
-60kg: 526 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Rishod Sobirov, Uzbekistan (1,486 pts)
James Millar - 36th, 166 pts
Ashley McKenzie - 74th, 70 pts
-66kg: 604 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Tsagaanbaatar Hashbaatar, Mongolia (1,126 pts)
Colin Oates - 29th, 192 pts
-73kg: 590 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Wang Ki-Chun, South Korea (1,230 pts)
Danny Williams - 68th, 84 pts
-81kg: 634 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Kim Jae-Bum, South Korea (1,260 pts)
Euan Burton - 5th, 702 pts
Tom Reed - 43rd, 132 pts
-90kg: 548 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Takashi Ono, Japan (1,770 pts)
Michael Horley - 53rd, 84 pts
Winston Gordon - 102nd, 30 pts
-100kg: 596 pts needed to reach top eight
World number one: Takamasa Anai, Japan (1,448 pts)
James Austin - 83rd, 36
* Sophie Cox is a special case. Cox, now 28, competed at Athens 2004 before retiring and becoming an English teacher in Thailand. She decided to make a comeback earlier this year and, within weeks of restarting her judo career, was selected to represent GB at the World Championships. However, she has yet to earn a world ranking.
** The data for Gibbons and Woolcock applies to the-70kg category, in which they usually fight, but they have been moved to the -78kg category for the World Championships. Britain has a surfeit of talent at -70kg so the coaching staff have made the decision to give four athletes an outing rather than two.