Stevens gets to grips with his rivals

Philip Nicksan on British judo hopes at the Tournoi de Paris this weekend
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The Independent Online
There are not many men in England who can comfortably last for five minutes on the judo mat with Ray Stevens. Standing just over six feet, and with a musculature to match, he would literally put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the shade. Allied to all that, he is without doubt the most technically skilled member of the British men's team, as proficient in the panoply of throws as he is in the quieter but equally decisive armlocks and holds.

Finding effective training partners, therefore, is a serious problem. "Most of the big men seem to go into rugby,'' he mourns. And he is just too soft-spoken and polite to gatecrash a Will Carling scrum training session and issue a challenge to one and all.

Instead, he has set himself the task of starting his 1996 bid to better the Olympic silver he won in Barcelona by participating in this weekend's Tournoi de Paris, one of the toughest events in the world. "I wanted to face the best - I didn't see any point in going to smaller tournaments where I had nothing to gain and everything to lose," Stevens said. ''I want to try the Japanese and the Russians again - and they will all be there in Paris.''

He does not need to do this. For the first time since judo first entered the Olympics in 1964, it is necessary to achieve a qualification standard - a placing in the World Championships or accumulation of sufficient points in selected A tournaments. Only five British fighters passed the World Championships hurdle - featherweight Sharon Rendle, light middleweight Diane Bell, light-heavyweight Kate Howey, lightweight Danny Kingston - and Ray Stevens.

So, he like the others (except Howey who is injured) chose to come to Paris. Each has different reasons, but Stevens is a bit of a surprise. He has always been prone to injury, and he could have trained under wraps and unleashed it at the Olympics - which is what he effectively did in Barcelona.

But not now. "I didn't have a very good year last year,'' Stevens said. "I have been working more on power because I am really manufactured up to 95 kilos, whereas men like the Russian Sergueev are coming down from 100 kilos. More than anything else, I need to get it on with these people to keep in touch with what they are like - because that is what it is going to happen in the Olympics.'

He fights on Sunday and will be watched closely by those old training partners and rivals who have now moved into coaching - for Ray Stevens is the last of a generation of British male fighters who made such an impact on world judo in the 1980s.

Principal among them is Neil Adams, former world champion and now manager of the British team. He knows Stevens' judo better than anyone - they were training partners for years.

The young coaching team led by Adams had its first real drubbing in Tokyo in September when the squad returned with its worst result ever, one bronze from the redoubtable Sharon Rendle.

Adams feels he has to at least equal the four medals - two silvers and two bronzes - won by the British team in Barcelona, but it will not be easy, even though the women's team again look like having the best chances.

Nicola Fairbrother, European lightweight champion and former world champion is on the verge of gaining Olympic qualification (after losing her title in Tokyo). She has been faultless so far, winning in Switzerland and last month in Russia. She could settle the matter by winning in Paris today.

Also today, Sharon Rendle, the former world featherweight champion, has to prove that, at 29, she is still stronger than her younger rival, the 20-year-old Debbie Allan.

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