Judo: French medals raise British hopes

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THERE WAS a stronger note of optimism within the British squad at the Tournoi de Paris after three days of competition than when it arrived , for the silver won by Nicola Fairbrother and a bronze for Kate Howey were more than expected.

After the bronze won by the featherweight David Somerville at Tokyo's Kano Cup last month, Udo Quellmalz, the new chief coach of Britain's judo squad, can now hope that he will not face the ignominy of a World Championships without a medal from the host country in Birmingham in October.

"The Paris tournament is as tough as a world championship - perhaps with four French in each weight, even tougher," Quellmalz said. While there are few magic wands a new coach can wave, especially in such a technical sport as judo, he has added a sense of order and professionalism to the British team. Most seem eager for him to succeed - something of an achievement for the first foreign appointment.

Fairbrother beat China's Lin Li in the semi-final of the lightweight category to guarantee herself a silver medal. At 29 her successful career - a world title, an Olympic silver medal, and three European titles - is not over. After a major shoulder rebuild, she is back.

"I felt much sharper than I have for a long time" said Fairbrother, who now lives and trains in Spain - the home of the world and Olympic champion Isabel Ferdinandez, who threw her for ippon (10 points) in the final during a momentary loss of concentration. "I was trying something new - but midway through the fight I lost sight of the plan and she threw me."

However, the decisiveness with which she won in the two opening rounds against useful opponents demonstrated that Fairbrother could reach the final in Birmingham. So could Kate Howey. The likelihood of a successful defence of her world middleweight title looked small before the weekend. But in winning her bronze (with a knee injury) she knows she is finally coming to terms with the new middleweight limit of 70kg.

The British team leaving here with two medals for the women's squad was a reminder of the heady days when Karen Briggs, Diane Bell (now assistant coach) and others ruled the world. Quellmalz's greatest challenge, however, is to rejuvenate the men's squad - perhaps starting with the wayward 1996 European lightweight champion, Danny Kingston.

He won his first fight in Paris, but lost his second. The question that remains is whether he has his weight problem under control - or whether crash dieting for Paris sapped his endurance.

Kingston is an exceptional talent - not just unorthodox, but original in his moves. His weakness is that he is a typical example of what the Japanese call a ronin - a masterless Samurai who owes allegiance to no one, trusts no one, and is prey to his mood of the time. He is Quellmalz's greatest individual challenge in his new job. Success for both could bring the first world medal for British men for 11 long years.