PREVIEW-Olympics-Japan's judokas tipped to keep hold over rivals

LONDON, July 16 Mon Jul 16, 2012 11:30am EDT

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LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) - The hulking frame of France's seemingly unstoppable judoka Teddy Riner may well leave the biggest lasting impression at the London Games, but it is the Japanese who are again hotly tipped to keep a firm hold on the majority of medals.

Since judo became an official Olympic sport in 1964, Japan, birthplace of the martial art, has won 35 gold medals, taking four of the 14 golds up for grabs in Beijing four years ago.

However, that haul was down from the eight golds won in Athens four years earlier and with only two of Japan's 14-strong team having appeared at previous Games, and a growing array of rivals from across the globe, their dominance faces its stiffest challenge yet.

"Japan has definitely great potential to get a lot of gold, specifically in the lightweight categories," Nicolas Messner from the International Judo Federation, the sport's governing body, told Reuters.

"But the level of the competition is really high and in many categories, there is not one favourite, but two, three, four."

Working in the Japanese judokas' favour could be rule changes which Messner said had taken the sport back to its roots, with the added bonus of leading to far more "ippons" - a match-winning move that usually sees an opponent thrown onto their back.

Almost 400 contenders from 134 countries, up from 96 in 2008, will battle it out in the seven weight categories for men and women during seven days of competition at London's ExCel exhibition centre.

South Korea will again be among the medals along with France, which won two silver and two bronze medals in Beijing and have Lucie Decosse, runner up four years ago, hot favourite in the women's -70 kg class.

They also boast the standout judoka in Riner, the 6ft 8ins (2.04m) giant who already has five individual world titles to his name at the age of just 23. He is firm favourite to convert the bronze he won at Beijing into a gold this time in the heavyweight (+100 kg) section.

"Teddy Riner is already a legend. If he wins the title in London, he will become the best active judoka," said Messner.

Many medal contenders come from more unheralded sporting nations such as Egypt, Kazakhstan and Georgia, while Uzbekistan's Rishod Sobirov is a massive favourite in the men's -60 kg class.

Mongolia's Tuvshinbayar Naidan, who won his country's first Olympic gold in Beijing, will attempt to defend his title in the men's -100kg class, while his compatriot Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar will fancy his chances in the -66 kg division. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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