Despite these difficulties, as the mid 90’s rolled through and Sydney prepared to host the 2000 Olympics Games, Australian Judo had some new faces that had started imposing themselves on the world scene. The likes of Cath Arlove, Rob Ivers, Daniel Kelly and especially Maria Pekli had begun to assert themselves and regularly place top 10 at world events.
Given that Australia hosted the games the team was well funded in the 18 month run up to the Olympics, and it showed with several top 10 finishes and Maria Pekli’s Bronze Medal.
The same core of athletes carried on until the Athens 2004 games and achieved mixed results. In the next few years and leading into where we are now, the Judo world has become even more broad (over 150 countries participated at 2011 World Championships). The funding has gradually decreased more and more to the point where nowadays any time you see an Aussie Judoka out there competing they have payed their way either entirely or in part.
Judo has become bigger and bigger around the world whilst in Australia the sport has not kept pace with population growth. I am regularly told by old-timers about the days when 50 black belts were on the mat during training sessions at many clubs and that Judo was taught in many schools.
Australia has definitely been left behind in the explosion of international Judo. In effect, we have hollowed out a generation of Judo players (the very generation that I am a part of). For years now small Australian teams have turned up to the IJF events and been greeted very warmly by much much larger contingents of young, fit Judo players from around the world. There’s a real frustration on my part, because it makes Australia look like the Jamaican Bobsled Team of the Judo World and cannon fodder for the big guns.
I believe in some ways there was a turning point after Beijing 2008 when the IJF changed the qualifying system from a continental quota system (where Oceania was guaranteed 14 spots, most won by Australians) to a universal system whereby the 22 best men and 14 best women in the world per weight division would qualify for the London 2012 Olympics. The process would unfold over two years beginning in May 2010 and concluding in April 2012.
In the months prior to May 2010 I had many conversations with Judo coaches around Australia and the world and the feeling was ‘if Australia qualifies two people for London 2012 they’re doing well’.
Well, we are 18 months into this process and as it stands we currently have eight people in qualifying positions. The team we have today is smaller than previous generations but it contains a group of athlete’s that are investing all of their time and money into pursuing their dream of competing at the Olympic Games.
Optimistically, there have been more Australians winning medals at IJF events in the last 12 months then the last 12 years.