sexta-feira, março 28, 2008

Business as Usual

Business as Usual
By Anže Tomič
When you think of Slovenian sports, judo is hardly likely to be the first image to pop into your head. Yet, by some strange quirk of fate, this country, which is better known for its skiing, basketball and handball prowess, has become a force to be reckoned with in this martial art form.
For those in the know, the successes of Slovenian judokas at two World Cup tour events in early 2008 came as little surprise. The first medals came in Budapest where Urška Žolnir took top honours in the 63 kg category and Lucija Polavder finished second in the over-79 kg category. Hours later, in Vienna, the Slovenian flag was once again being raised; this time to salute the achievements of the young Aljaž Sedej, who finished third in the over-81 kg category.
For Urška Žolnir, the road to her seventh victory at a World Cup event involved facing and defeating Esther Stam from the Netherlands, Germany’s Claudia Ahrens and the Austrian judoka Hilde Drexler before overpowering her Cuban semi-final opponent, Anaisis Hernandez. Žolnir maintained her momentum throughout the final and eventually wore down China’s Yuhua Xu to earn a well-deserved victory and a place on top of the podium. Lucija Polavder easily accounted for her first three opponents but she was no match for three-time world champion Wen Tong of China who was in unstoppable form in the final. Slovenia was also represented by Lea Murko and Regina Jernejc. In Vienna, Aljaž Sedej had to beat Georgia’s Sabo Gabašvilij, China’s Leij Guo, Tomaš Muzkin of the Czech Republic and the Hungarian Sandor Nagysolymosi to earn his place in the semi-final, which he then lost to Elhan Rajabli of Azerbaijan. However, he was determined to leave with a medal and duly despatched Levan Ciklaurij of Georgia in the match for third place.
Sedej’s work was by no means finished and, just a week later, the nineteen-year-old went one place better at the Super World Cup tournament in Hamburg. This time he worked his way through to the final by beating Romania’s Alexander Gaino, Jirij Pokorny of the Czech Republic and the German Sven Maresch. In the gold-medal round of the 66-strong field, he fell to the Korean judoka Jae-Bum Kim in overtime. While he may have been disappointed not to have taken the title, he would have undoubtedly been pleased to know that his two medal performances had earned him a place in the Slovenian team for this year’s Beijing Olympics.
Olympic appetites
The recent World Cup results by the men’s and the women’s teams are more the rule rather than the exception. These successes are amplified when taking into account that judo is an Olympic sport and that the Slovenian flag has already been raised on the Olympic stage. Urška Žolnir is considered to be the best judoka in the country and has an achievement-filled career at the age of just 26. Following on from her bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, she added another bronze at the World Championships in Cairo in 2005 and a silver medal at the European Championships in 2007 in Belgrade. All these major tournament successes came after impressive seasons on the World Cup circuit, on which she has won a total of seven tournaments from 2003 to 2008. According to her coach, Marjan Fabjan, who is the head trainer at the Sankaku judo club and also coaches Lucija Polavder, the level of interest in the sport
has risen steadily since the last Olympic Games. He believes that this will be borne out by the number of Slovenian competitors that he is expecting to compete in Beijing. While only four members of the Slovenian Judo team theoretically have the right to compete in Beijing right now – compared to the five who ultimately took part in Athens, Fabjan expects that Urška Žolnir, Aljaž Sedej, Lucija Polavder and Rok Dragšič will almost certainly be joined by Sašo Jereb, Klemen Ferjan and two more younger contestants. The coach described Aljaž Sedej’s recent form as “remarkable” and added: “If Polavder and Žolnir can remain injury free, we can expect great things from our Olympic team.” So, if everything goes well, Slovenia just might be celebrating some more judo medals come the end of the next Olympics.

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