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The Republic of Korea’s Kim Wonjin and An Baul are the current world No1s in their respective weight divisions – 60kg (extra-lightweight) and 66kg (half-lightweight) – and will both gunning for gold at their maiden Olympic Games this summer.
Born on 1 May 1992 and 3 March 1994 respectively, Kim and An, who won the 2015 world title in his division, were too young to compete at London 2012, but are now aiming to add their country’s impressive all-time Olympic judo haul of 40 medals, 11 of them gold, 14 silver and 15 bronze.
“I think the Republic of Korea will win a lot of medals in Rio,” said a confident An. “We’ll be going up against Japan for the honour of being the most successful judo team, and there will be a few European teams who should also enjoy some success, like Russia.”
Vying for gold with An in his weight category will be Russia’s Mikhail Pulyaev, the man he beat to claim the world crown in Astana (KAZ) last year and who also won world silver the previous year in Chelyabinsk (RUS), where Japan’s three-time world champion Masashi Ebinuma took gold.
Ebinuma underlined the threat he will pose at Rio by winning the prestigious Paris Grand Slam in February, while Mongolia’s Tumurkhuleg Davaadorj and Ukraine’s Georgii Zantaraia – respectively ranked second and third in the world at the moment – have also excelled on the international circuit this season.
“I’m obviously one of the best-ranked athletes in the world in my weight category,” commented An, “so it stands to reason that people are expecting a lot of me. I wouldn’t say that I’m not feeling the pressure, but I do feel very proud to be part of the national team.”
Kim spearheads new generation
A world bronze medallist in Astana, Kim listed his main challengers for Olympic gold in the 60kg division: “I think my biggest rivals will be the Kazakh Yeldos Smetov, who won my division at the 2015 worlds, Russia’s Beslan Mudranov and Georgia’s Amiran Papinashvili.” Nor can Kim overlook the credentials of Japan’s Naohisa Takato, the 2013 world champion and currently ranked second in the world behind the South Korean.
“There’s been a complete generational handover in the South Korean team,” continued Kim. “The athletes that competed at the 2012 Games have retired and joined the national team’s coaching staff. The average age is lower than ever now and some new faces have come into the team.”
He added: “Over the last two years the new generation of judokas has come on a lot and is now dominating the world rankings. We’ve gained in experience and I think we can kick on and achieve success. I’m not particularly bothered about the rankings. As a member of the national team, I’m working hard and preparing myself as best I can, which is why I’m seen as one of the main contenders for the Olympic title.”
As both Kim and An know, the competition in their divisions promises to be extremely tight, and that will make for a thrilling spectacle as the two world No1s bid to add Olympic gold to their list of honours.