Taekwondo Tokyo 2020 Qualification Tournament: An All-or-Nothing Battle Fest
Who will be the first ever Japanese taekwondo athlete to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games?
Taekwondo will be an official Paralympic sport for the first time in Tokyo. And on January 26, the final taekwondo qualification tournament for the Tokyo Paralympics, the Sunmarie Cup, was held at the Nippon Foundation Para Arena, with many of the athletes’ supporters and many media personnel in attendance.
The competitive slots for the Tokyo Paralympics were distributed to the countries of top-ranking athletes at the end of 2019. Japan, which had had no top-ranking athletes, was given three host country slots, with the champions of the Men’s 61kg- Class, Men’s 75kg- Class, and Women’s 58kg+ Class in domestic qualification tournaments winning each of the three slots.
Mitsuya Tanaka Defeats Taekwondo Pioneer to Win Ticket to Tokyo
First, the Men’s 61kg- Class. The three athletes who’d made it into the qualification tournament battled it out in a round-robin event, with each match closer than the last.
Para taekwondo athletes, who have upper limb impairments, are divided into four classes according to their level of impairment (K41-K44). At the Tokyo Paralympics, however, the K43 Class (impairment below both elbows) and the K44 Class (light impairment in one arm) will be held in a combined event.
Of the three who competed in this qualification tournament, Chikara Ito was of the K44 Class, and Mitsuya Tanaka and Kenta Awatari were of the K43 Class. As such, Ito had been the favorite to win the event.
The first match saw Mitsuya Tanaka (ranked No. 11 in the world) pitted against Kenta Awatari (ranked No. 5 in the world). Tanaka, who had shaved more than 10kg off of his weight since last March, and who had dropped his weight class from 75kg to 61kg, took the lead from the start. The match developed with both shoving their shoulders against one another, but while Awatari won points by getting in kicks as they separated, Tanaka used his physicality and his longer reach to rack up points through back leg kicks. In the third round, with Tanaka still in the lead, the match developed into a fierce back-and-forth of kicks. But Tanaka, who at that point had gotten a good feel for the match, was able to neatly dodge his opponent’s kicks, then go in with his own attacks, and was ultimately the one to emerge victorious, beating Awatari 48-24—a substantial margin.
Awatari was defeated in the first match, losing his opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics on his own
The second match in the event was between Tanaka and Ito, with his amputated right arm. Ito kept his impaired right arm behind him as he fought, using his other arm to defend from Tanaka’s kicks, then going in with his own attacks. He even got in a 180-degree back spin kick—a high-point move—leading the first round 10-9.
Ito attacked with his right leg, but had a hard time winning points from the second round
The second round, however, saw Tanaka put up an incredible counterattack. He’d dance out in front, inviting his opponent’s kicks, then dodge, using his longer reach to get in his own kicks—winning multiple points in a row. His kicks weren’t very lucrative in terms of points—things like front kicks and turning kicks (2 points)—but he kept the attacks coming. Ito, on the other hand, seemed to be faltering a bit, perhaps because of his focus on higher-scoring moves like spin kicks (3-4 points).
They went into the final round with Tanaka in the lead, 11-30. Ito would go in with spin kicks to try to recapture the lead, but Tanaka was able to stop the attacks with his front leg kicks, using his back turning kicks to rack up even more points. He’d used his longer reach to gain control of the match, and had gotten into the groove of dodging his opponent, then going in with his own attacks. When the dust settled, Tanaka had won by a large margin—15-38. And he’d gotten his ticket to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics.
Tanaka looked to the stands, greeting his peers from his company and his dojo with a wide smile, then said, “I did a lot of research for today, but they tell me in my everyday training at the dojo to imagine myself fighting some of the world’s best athletes. This right here isn’t the goal.” As for what he needs to work on in the future, he said, “Foreign athletes in the 61kg- class are very quick, so speed is something I want to work on.” His eyes were fixed firmly on that Tokyo stage.
Tanaka had turned his supporters’ energies into power; as someone who’s had experience working as a parasport instructor, he said, “I’m happy I’m in a position to be able to drive excitement for parasports as an athlete”
Kudo Bests Rising Star Hoshino with a Very Preceptive Prediction
The Men’s 75kg- Class, on the other hand, had Shunsuke Kudo (K44 Class/ranked No. 8 in the world), winner of the All Japan Taekwondo Championship, battling it out against 18-year old Yusuke Hoshino (K44 Class), who had upped his weight class from 61kg-. Both athletes use their non-impaired right arm as their “front” arm. Their battle styles, however, are the opposite of each other. Kudo tends to be aggressive, going out in front and lashing out with kicks whenever there’s an opening. Hoshino, on the other hand, is all about counters, with a particularly dangerous right leg counter-kick. The two had a close first round that ended 2-2, then a second round that had Hoshino coming out in front, 5-4, with his trademark counter-kicks
The final round, however, was when Kudo showed off his true abilities. Kudo moved forward, limiting the space between them, then unleashed a string of close-quarter kicks—a strength of his—and won multiple points in a row, taking the lead from Hoshino. He successfully blocked Hoshino’s 360-degree spin kick—a last-ditch attempt to win an upset—and won the match, 15-11.
Kudo made several close-quarter kicks in a row, pulling off an upset in the final round
“It all comes down to the research I did on my opponent, and the training I did to prepare, all under my coach’s guidance,” said Kudo, looking back on the match. When asked about his goals for the Tokyo Paralympics, he said, “I want to win a gold medal to give back to my parents and all my friends and peers who’ve supported me this entire time. To do that, I want to work on my physical strength, so I can put up a good fight against the larger foreign athletes.”
Women’s Event Shoko Ota to Become a Winter/Summer Paralympian
Things in the Women’s 58kg+ were a lot less heated, what with there being only one athlete who’d made it into the tournament. The one athlete, Shoko Ota, graced the event with an exhibition match.
What with her opponent being a coach at the same dojo, the two seemed accustomed to fighting each other. Still, Ota moved aggressively, coming out in front and lashing out with her kicks. She maintained her stamina even in the second half of the match, moving just as aggressively as in the start and winning the match 13-12, adding an edge to her official induction into the Japan national team.
Ota showed off her strength, with smooth, consecutive kicks, despite only being in the sport for two years
Ota has competed in the Winter Paralympic Games three times for cross-country skiing and biathlon, and has won a silver medal and a bronze medal. This will be her first time competing in the Summer Paralympic Games, and of course, she’s never worn a Paralympic gold medal. “This Paralympics is special, because it’s going to be held in Japan. I’m so grateful that I get to compete in that environment. It’s an opportunity to have a lot of people watch para taekwondo, so I want to be in my best condition, and work for that gold,” said Ota.
The athletes who qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics (Left to right: Mitsuya Tanaka, Shunsuke Kudo, Shoko Ota)
text by TEAM A
photo by X-1