Judo: Howey's way ahead

Philip Nicksan in Paris says a gold medal has given British judo a much-needed lift
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The Independent Online
Kate Howey's gold medal performance at the world judo championships was stunning - literally for Anja Rekowski of Germany who was smashed to the mat with about as much force as one human being can exert on another. Such is the drama of judo combat.

But the win has a wider significance for British judo. It ended the long drought of world titles and Olympic medals which Britain has come to expect from one of its most successful sports, following in the tradition of Neil Adams and Ray Stevens in the men's division and the women world champions Jane Bridge and Diane Bell (now coaches), Karen Briggs, Sharon Rendle, and Nicola Fairbrother.

Howey's win has come at the key moment for British judo. It signals an end to the disarray with five years of poor management, falling membership, and political in-fighting. And it has come not a moment too soon. In 1999, the eyes of the judo world will be focused on Britain when Birmingham hosts the World Championships.

Mounting the event in the Palais Omnisports, Bercy, has cost 12 million francs (pounds 1.5m). But even with 42,000 seats (at between pounds 15-20 a day) sold, the French Judo Association still lost some 2 million francs (pounds 250,000).

The massive interest reflects the popularity in France. There are some 550,000 French Judo Federation licence-holders - and a further active judo population estimated at 300,000. By comparison, Britain's licence membership has now sunk in eight years from 40,000 to 22,000.

Two years ago, when Birmingham hosted the European Championships, the British Judo Association demonstrated it could mount an efficient international event. But the World Championships will be much larger. Some 100 countries participated in Paris. With Birmingham being the first qualifying tournament for the Sydney Olympics, this will certainly be exceeded.

The task facing the new chairman of the BJA, Lesley-Anne Alexander, is enormous. Overnight, she has to transform a dispirited association. She will urgently need to find a minimum of pounds 250,000 - the likely shortfall - or see British judo go bankrupt.

At the same time, she has two years to create a new coaching structure to ensure that Britain does not find itself in the embarrassing situation of presenting a World Championships without winning anything of note. And yet she has also to look to the future, to make sure that sufficient investment is made in nurturing the junior talent to be ready for the Olympics in Athens in 2004.

What Kate Howey's win has done, is to give the all-crucial focal point for a new start that British judo so desperately needs.