Friendship and courage are key in the chase for Tokyo 2020 mixed team gold

Clarisse Agbegnenou, a member of the 2017 European Judo Championship gold medal-winning women’s team, has a clear blueprint for success as she seeks to make France the mixed team to beat at its inaugural event at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Picture by IOC/Yo Nagaya

The new Olympic event, recently added to the programme, will feature at least 12 teams represented by three male judoka, in the -73kg, -90kg and +90kg categories, and three female judoka, in the -57kg, -70kg and +70kg categories. All the action will take place on one day, with a quarter-final repechage system in which the top four ranked teams will be seeded.

The key is being courageous, having a really big heart Clarisse Agbegnenou - Clarisse Agbegnenou

“We [the French women’s team] are so good because we all train together, we spend all our time together, we are friends. We know each other really well, we can talk together really easily and support each other well because we are so close,” Agbegnenou said of the team that won the 2015 and 2017 European Championships (as well as claiming bronze in 2016), and were world champions in 2014.

Agbegnenou, silver medallist in the -63kg category at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, is adamant that a similar level of integration between male and female judoka is needed between now and 2020 to give mixed teams the best possible shot at success.

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“At the moment it is all separate because we (France’s male and female teams) have been working on different things,” she said. “But now it would be good to do some training together, two or three sessions a week and maybe a training camp. We can both bring things to each other and together we can do something really good.”

Figuring out the best way to assimilate the cream of the crop across the weight and gender spectrum is a first-time challenge for every nation. While men’s and women’s team events have been contested at world championships since 1994 and 1997 respectively, mixed teams are yet to feature at a major senior tournament. They did feature, with great success, at both the Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010 and Nanjing 2014.

Increasing gender equality was a key factor behind the addition of the mixed team event for Tokyo 2020. The mixed team event is likely to be one of the most thrilling days of judo at the 2020 Games, with crowds delighting in the narrative, the drama and the fast pace of the action.

Picture by IOC/Yang Xi

“It is good news for judo,” Agbegnenou said. “You have to choose the best men and women in one team, which is hard, but the quality will be very good.”

Team competition does have a distinguished history in judo. The sport’s first competitions in Japan, its birthplace, were routinely contested between teams representing organisations such as the police and universities. A collective ethos has also been prevalent since the beginning, with founder Master Jigoro Kano emphasising the values of respect, friendship and collaboration.

All the mixed team athletes will come from those judoka already qualified for individual events, which will undoubtedly add a layer of intrigue in the build-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games.

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Japan will go in to August’s World Championships as favourites for mixed team event, and it will be a surprise if the next Olympic hosts are not the mixed team to beat in their own backyard in three years’ time. The men are 2014 and 2015 world champions, with the women having joined them atop the podium in 2015. But form, reputation and home advantage aside, Agbegnenou has one more thing to add to the mix when ascertaining what it will take to win Olympic mixed team gold.

“The key is being courageous, having a really big heart.”