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EXPLAINER: Why is there so much drama in Olympic boxing?

EXPLAINER: Why is there so much drama in Olympic boxing?

TOKYO — When Mourad Aliev sat on the boxing ring apron at the Kokugikan Arena for an hour after his disqualification for head-butting, the French super heavyweight took a metaphorical seat alongside all the boxers who believe they’ve been grievously wronged by Olympic refereeing and judging.Over a century into boxing’s stormy Olympic history, that gathering of angry fighters could fill an arena.Ingemar Johansson. Jo Dong-gi. Byun Jung-il. Roy Jones Jr. Evander Holyfield. Floyd Mayweather Jr. Alexis Vastine. Michael Conlan. Vassiliy Levit. That’s just a fraction of the boxers who felt victimized by controversial refereeing or messy judging in the Olympic ring over the decades.For as long as boxing has been in the modern Games, fighters and fans have complained about it. Every attempt to improve the judging and officiating has been undone by another round of missteps.The sport now is essentially defined by images of outraged boxers protesting their perceived injustices, from Byun’s Seoul ring sit-in to Conlan’s middle fingers to the Rio judges. Losing fighters cry conspiracy and corruption at almost every defeat, never explaining why a global cabal was created specifically to hurt them.But how much of modern Olympic boxing’s dismal reputation is rooted in genuine scandal, and how much is simple human inconsistency? What causes some of those controversial decisions?The answers probably aren’t as complex as boxing conspiracy theorists and piqued pugilists believe.THE FIGHTS ARE SHORTModern Olympic fights are three rounds. That’s rarely enough time to decide anything in a quality boxing match. Many professionals are just starting to work in the third round, but an Olympian can be doomed before that.“Sometimes a boxer is just getting going, and it’s already over,” U.S. head coach Billy Walsh said.The fights are short by necessity, since boxers must compete multiple times in the 16-day tournament. The differences between fighters are often minuscule over nine minutes of competition compared to 36 in a pro title fight, but a losing boxer always fixates on what she did well.Unless boxers are allowed to fight until one physically incapacitates the other — which is the way they actually competed at the ancient Olympic Games in 688 B.C. — decisions are an unfortunate necessity.JUDGING IS SUBJECTIVEEvery boxing decision is inherently subjective, despite what your friend who buys every pay-per-view wants you to believe.A good example arose when Conlan lost a decision to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin. The touted Irish bantamweight provided the iconic image of those Games when he flipped off the judges, slowly rotating so everybody could see his opinion.But that’s the dilemma: Judging is an opinion.Conlan and his supporters claimed the decision represented anything from endemic financial corruption to a conspiracy supporting a Russian team that won one gold medal. To many others, Conlan boxed well and probably deserved the decision — yet he also got punched in the face repeatedly by Nikitin, who exploited Conlan’s inconsistent defense. Nikitin fought courageously with a bloody face, and he landed enough to have a chance in a short fight.Conlan believes he was robbed. Others believe he just wasn’t dominant enough to remove objective doubt.And these are all opinions.ALL OVER THE PLACEMany bouts in Tokyo have featured five judges from five continents. It’s an admirable dedication to representation, but judges from vastly differing backgrounds are rarely in lockstep on the intricacies of scoring.The International Boxing Association (AIBA) made a much-praised return to the 10-must scoring system before Rio, and it dedicated extensive resources to coordinated judge education. Progress was being made.AIBA was then suspended from the Olympics in 2019 after widespread financial problems alongside the usual complaints about the judging at the 2016 Olympics — where there were actually fewer inexplicable results than in Beijing or London under the old punch-counting system. Olympic judging has moved forward and backward for decades, and this dance marathon is tiring.HARSH PROTECTION STANDARDSReferee Andy Mustacchio disqualified Aliev for head clashes with British opponent Frazer Clarke, who had cuts near both eyes. Aliev claimed he hadn’t even been warned, although others at ringside disagreed. “Those are the rules of the sport,” Clarke said. “We didn’t make them.”Olympic boxing has rules encouraging early stoppages for violations, ostensibly to protect fighters. Professional referees usually prefer to extend a bout, since that’s why everyone is being paid to be there — and that’s often when it’s getting good.The Olympic sport often doesn’t understand this flexibility: French lightweight Sofiane Oumiha was stopped Saturday when Keyshawn Davis stunned and wobbled him with punches that didn’t even knock him down.Aliev and Oumiha almost certainly would have been allowed to continue a pro fight. A zealous referee can end an Olympic fight for relatively minor reasons — even when it seems terribly unfair.SORE LOSERSSimply put, many boxers are poor sports. That’s a self-preservation instinct: Most fighters’ careers are over when they begin to lose regularly. It’s rare for any boxer to accept defeat when a close fight goes to a decision — and that’s about 90% of Olympic bouts.Some Olympic fighters behave admirably in defeat. Kazakh middleweight sensation Abilkhan Amankul was gracious Sunday after a narrow quarterfinal loss to Brazil’s Hebert Sousa.Most boxers are inextinguishably confident in themselves. They take a losing decision as a personal attack to be countered with two middle fingers up, or with a ring sit-in.———AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham is on assignment in Tokyo covering Olympic boxing. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gregbeacham. More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

French boxer sits on ring apron in protest after DQ loss

French boxer sits on ring apron in protest after DQ loss

TOKYO — A French super heavyweight boxer sat on the Olympic ring apron in protest for about an hour after he was disqualified from his quarterfinal bout because of an intentional head butt.Mourad Aliev reacted with outrage when referee Andy Mustacchio disqualified him with four seconds left in the second round Sunday. The referee determined Aliev had intentionally used his head to clash with British opponent Frazer Clarke, who had significant cuts near both of his eyes.After the verdict was announced, Aliev sat down on the canvas just outside the ropes and above the steps leading down to the arena floor. He remained there unmoving, and French team officials came up to speak with him and brought him water.“This was my way of showing that the decision was so unfair,” Aliev said through a translator. “I wanted to fight against all that injustice, and honestly today, also my teammates had unfair results. I trained my whole life for this, and I came into here, and because of one referee’s decision, I lost. It’s over.”After more than 30 minutes, boxing officials emerged and spoke with Aliev and the French team. Aliev left the apron, and everyone went inside the Kokugikan Arena.About 15 minutes later, Aliev returned to the arena and resumed his protest in the same spot for about 15 more minutes. He finally left for good, but not before ripping the referee and the oversight of the temporary Boxing Task Force running the Tokyo tournament.“I would have won, but it had already been written that I was disqualified,” Aliev said. “I prepared my whole life for this, so getting mad about this result is natural.”Aliev and Clarke were engaged in close fighting throughout their two rounds, and Aliev did appear to lean into his punches zealously. Clarke, who clinched a medal with the win, thought the decision was fair.“I felt there was a couple of heads going in there,” Clarke said. “Whether it was intentional or not, that’s not for me to say. … I told (Aliev afterward) to calm down. You’re not thinking with your head. You’re thinking with your heart. I know it’s hard, but the best thing to do is go back to the changing room.”Aliev protested vocally and emphatically immediately after the bout, yelling to the mostly empty arena: “Everyone knows I won!” Aliev claimed he hadn’t been warned by the referee about his aggressive, headfirst fighting before his disqualification, although some ringside observers thought he had.Aliev refused Clarke’s attempts to calm him in the ring. Aliev won the first round on three of the five judges’ scorecards in what was a close fight.Aliev’s protest didn’t interrupt the tournament since his bout with Clarke was the final fight of the afternoon session, which meant the next bout wasn’t scheduled for more than three hours.France won six boxing medals in Rio de Janeiro, but its talented team has come up short in a few close fights in Tokyo.Lightweight Sofiane Oumiha was disappointed by a quick stoppage Saturday in his loss to Keyshawn Davis, who was declared the winner after staggering Oumiha with punches in the second round. Oumiha wasn’t knocked down and appeared to be capable of fighting on, but amateur boxing referees are often quicker to stop fights than pro referees.“We went so far, but we don’t think they wanted France to get a medal,” France head coach John Dovi said. “It looks like every Olympiad there is something like that. I will quit the French team and stop coaching because of that. It’s very difficult.”Aliev’s protest is just the latest chapter in the distasteful side story of Olympic boxing, which has been plagued for decades by a combination of inconsistent officiating from occasionally sketchy figures and poor sportsmanship from its losing fighters.The most famous protest against a judging decision occurred in 1988 in Seoul, when South Korean bantamweight Byun Jung-il refused to leave the ring after being penalized two points for using his head illegally. Byun stayed in the ring for over an hour, and Seoul officials eventually turned out the lights.The Tokyo Olympic boxing tournament is being run by a special task force instead of the International Boxing Association, which was suspended by the IOC in 2019.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Olympic women's boxing is bigger, deeper, better in Tokyo

Olympic women's boxing is bigger, deeper, better in Tokyo

TOKYO — About 15 minutes after Nesthy Petecio clinched the Philippines’ first-ever medal in Olympic women’s boxing, Irma Testa laughed with joy when she achieved the same history for Italy.When Sena Irie also clinched Japan’s landmark first women’s boxing medal a few hours later, she didn’t contain her tearful glee at her accomplishment during an Olympic tournament thick with women’s boxing history at the Kokugikan Arena.“It was the result of 13 years of work for me,” Irie said through a translator. “But this tournament is a very big moment for women’s boxing in Japan and in the world. We have come a long way. I hope this helps our sport.”Just nine years after the sport’s debut in London, the biggest women’s boxing field in Olympic history is more talented and more exciting than ever before — and it’s flattening all kinds of milestones in Tokyo.Petecio, Testa and Irie made their bits of national history Wednesday by winning in the quarterfinals of the Olympic 57-kilogram featherweight division, which didn’t exist before this year. Tokyo features 100 women fighting in five weight classes, nearly tripling the 36 fighters who competed in just three classes in London and Rio.Women’s boxing has grown rapidly over the past decade, both at the amateur and professional levels. But the sport has reached another level of legitimacy and attention in Japan, and it’s mostly because of the blossoming of the seeds planted in London.Dozens of girls who watched the sport’s debut on television from Britain in 2012 are all grown up now, and they arrived in Tokyo ready to fight.Caroline Dubois was only 11 when Ireland’s Katie Taylor and Britain’s Natasha Jonas fought each other in the quarterfinals of the London Games. Taylor went on to win gold, and Dubois was fascinated.Dubois is now the loaded British team’s lightweight, and while she’s pleased by the increased number of fighters, she knows the sport’s overall rise in quality is more important — and more daunting.“It’s mad how the level, the experience, the talent has all gone up,” Dubois said. “There’s so many talented people here with so many great styles. When Katie Taylor and Natasha were here, there were a few standout talents, like them and (two-time U.S. gold medalist) Claressa Shields. There were a few girls who were just above the rest. But the level has just gone up so much. Everything is even. Everybody is so talented.”The increase to 100 boxers is important, but the additional weight classes are even bigger to the fighters. Professional boxing has 17 weight classes for men and usually 10 for women, but boxers who don’t weigh close to the broader limits set by the Olympic sport — eight for men and five for women in Tokyo — are at a disadvantage that only gets smaller when classes are added.For instance, Testa fought at 60-kilogram lightweight in Rio de Janeiro, and she struggled against stronger opponents. Five years later, she could compete in a lighter weight class in Tokyo — and she promptly secured a medal.“Featherweight is best for me,” Testa said. “Every opponent and girl is very strong, but I feel better with myself. It’s very different. I’m very grateful.”Most of the women fighting in the new 69-kilogram welterweight class feel the same, including U.S. representative Oshae Jones. In London and Rio, the span between 60-kilogram lightweight and 75-kilogram middleweight was unbridgeable for many fighters.“It’s amazing to be the first welterweight, because in boxing, women still don’t get the same rights and privileges as the men,” Jones said. “With two more weight classes, I think we’re getting neck and neck with the men. I mean, our female team is tougher than the men, so I know we’re going to make the most of it.”The Olympic success of women’s boxing has even helped the pro game: After women’s boxing spent decades being treated as a curiosity or a sexist sideshow in the pro ranks, the Olympics propelled Shields and Taylor to professional careers while boosting the overall profile of the sport.Promoters are now taking it seriously, which means increased audiences and greater opportunities — even if the financial rewards don’t match the men yet.What the future holds for Olympic women’s boxing is just as unclear as the fate of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which championed the advances in women’s boxing before being suspended for the Tokyo Games over years of financial and ethical problems.The sport’s top officials and competitors would all like to add more fighters and more weight classes to pull even with the men, but the Olympics declined to increase the sport’s total athlete quota before Tokyo, which meant more women and fewer men competing in 2021.With Paris only three years away, many of the women in Tokyo are already making plans for 2024 — but they know the competition to get there will be even tougher.“There’s so many more females out there,” said Britain’s Karriss Artingstall, the fourth featherweight quarterfinalist. ”There’s just not the categories for them to fill yet. There’s thousands, millions of girls that want to compete at the international level. They can’t get the opportunity yet, but it’s coming. Women’s boxing is still just getting huge.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Zolotic hopes her gold heralds new era for US taekwondo

Zolotic hopes her gold heralds new era for US taekwondo

After Anastasija Zolotic became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in taekwondo, she gave praise and credit to USA TaekwondoBy GREG BEACHAM AP Sports WriterJuly 26, 2021, 4:02 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — Anastasija Zolotic was put in a taekwondo class by her father when she was barely 5 years old, and she loved it.Soon she was telling friends and family she would go to the Olympics someday.The day arrived in Tokyo, and the 18-year-old Zolotic ended that brilliant Sunday with a rampage through the featherweight division and a gold medal around her neck.“I came here confident and ready to take what was mine, and I did it,” Zolotic said.While discussing her feats afterward, the first women’s taekwondo gold medalist in U.S. history repeatedly gave credit to USA Taekwondo, the beleaguered governing body that has spent the past several years mired in sexual abuse scandals involving former coach Jin Suh and two-time Olympic gold medalist Steven López.Zolotic’s team is attempting to start a new era in an often-overlooked sport stateside, and she clearly intends to lead the way.“It’s a great organization,” Zolotic told The Associated Press. “I think it’s a whole new organization. I’m so excited to see what the future holds for us, and hopefully we’ll have more girls and guys in the next Olympics than just me and my fellow teammates.”Zolotic has a grand future in her Korean-born martial art defined by acrobatic kicks and often featuring bouts decided by thrilling, last-second scores. The U.S. has a solid Olympic record of 10 medals despite taekwondo’s low profile back home compared to fellow combat sports boxing or mixed martial arts, but Zolotic fervently believes there’s a new era of growth coming for taekwondo.“There had better be,” Zolotic said with a laugh. “I worked my butt off for it, and I hope I can help taekwondo get as popular as it can be in the U.S. I think I can, and hopefully in 2024, if I make it over to Paris, win another gold medal and just keep grinding to LA, by then taekwondo will be all over the map.”Any sport in need of a new standard-bearer would be overjoyed to have Zolotic, who emerged at the Olympics as an archetypal combat sports star. While showing off her impressive athleticism during the most dominant tournament of her young career, she also endeared herself off the floor with her combination of perceptive intelligence and endearing cockiness.When she was asked by the AP if she was glad to see two-time British Olympic champion Jade Jones knocked out of her bracket early on, Zolotic replied: “Well, I was kind of hoping to fight her in the finals and be the one to knock her off, but somebody else did it for me.”Zolotic often lets loose with a primal scream before her bouts or between rounds, saying she does it “to get out the nerves I’ve been picking up while I’m waiting for the ref to start — and then just kind of asserting my dominance.”She also doesn’t have many superstitions, other than keeping her toenails blue to match her lucky chest protector cover.More than a year after she had major left wrist surgery and then was forced to train in her basement during the coronavirus pandemic, Zolotic is eager to devote herself to the next Olympic cycle. She is taking college classes after graduating nearly two years early, and her sights are already set on making more history with a second gold.But first, she plans a multi-continent tour with her medal to see her family, first to her parents — immigrants to the Tampa Bay area from Bosnia and Herzegovina before the family moved to Colorado Springs for Ana’s training three years ago — and then to her relatives back in Europe.She celebrated her gold medal with her USA Taekwondo teammates, but also in a FaceTime call with her mother that didn’t go as perfectly as her fights.“She was in shock, screaming,” Zolotic said. “I don’t even think she realized she answered the phone. I’m looking at the ground, like, ‘Mom, where are you?’———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Shohei Ono: Judo's elusive star dominates another Olympics

Shohei Ono: Judo's elusive star dominates another Olympics

TOKYO — Shohei Ono made two of his first three opponents cry when he returned to judo at the Tokyo Olympics after 18 mysterious months away.These were not small tears, either. Loud, body-shaking sobs emanated from the men who had to walk behind Ono in defeat through the otherwise hushed halls of the Budokan, giving voice to the anguish of extraordinary athletes whose lifetimes of preparation had still left them unequipped to survive four minutes against Japan’s elusive judo superstar.Turkey’s Bilal Çiloğlu, the world’s No. 9 lightweight, screamed and put his fists to his head after Ono pinned him helplessly to the tatami for an ippon, his wails echoing down the corridors.Azerbaijan’s Rustam Orujov, second ranked in the world and top-seeded in Tokyo, dried his eyes with his untucked gi after Ono ended the rematch of their gold medal bout in Rio de Janeiro with two waza aris 65 seconds apart.Ono is the most dominant player on a Japanese judo team that might be the best in Olympic history. His combination of brute ferocity and tactical invention have kept him unbeaten since 2015, even in an Olympic weight class stacked with incredible talents — only one of whom has ever even scored a point against Ono.The 29-year-old Ono is now a two-time Olympic champion after winning five straight matches at the Budokan, completing his return with a superiority over his peers that only he can boast in the modern sport. Not even two-time Olympic champ Teddy Riner, the massive French heavyweight who went a decade between losses, is as dominant as Ono now.Ono is also idiosyncratic: He decided not to compete between the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the Olympics, choosing a path to gold that would seem foolish to a judoka without his abilities.Ono has followed this strategy before: He skipped two straight world championships after Rio, but returned at the Budokan in 2019 to claim his third world title. Ono apparently feels he benefits more from hard training in Japan’s peerless domestic system than on tournament trips to far-flung locations, and his results are unquestionable.“I was not in a match for a long time, but I decided to be practical,” Ono said through a translator. “I tried to engage in the training. I was not idle. I stayed focused.”All the months away couldn’t shake the focus of this judoka with two bulbous cauliflower ears shaped by years of being grinded into mats and attached to a head shaped like a paint can and stacked on a thick neck.Ono looks like a brawler, but his judo is built on speed, strength and a relentless diversity of technique. He also sometimes uses the evocative language of martial arts instruction to voice his goals and aspirations: For instance, he said his goal for these Olympics was “to move from a judoka with overwhelming presence to a judoka with absolute presence. I think I have come closer to that target.”Any notion of rustiness vanished when the same vicious competitor won his opening bouts Monday.Because Ono hadn’t fought since early 2020, he came into the Olympic draw unseeded and ranked 13th in the world. That meant disaster for Orujov, who likely would have steamrolled into the final if Ono hadn’t been drawn into his quarterfinal.Ono memorably beat Orujov in the Rio Olympic final and again in the 2019 world championship final. Ono took apart the decorated Azeri champion yet again at the Olympics, finishing him with 49 seconds left.In the evening, Ono’s two fights were tougher. His gold medal bout was an epic showdown with Georgia’s Lasha Shavdatuashvili, a fearless veteran who secured his third Olympic medal while getting Ono into several dangerous situations.“I had some fear going into golden score,” Ono admitted.Ono won when he abruptly executed a sasae tsurikomi ashi — pulling Shavdatuashvili toward him and sweeping his opponent’s foot backward — for the decisive waza ari nearly 5 1/2 minutes into sudden-death golden score.“I am a little disappointed, of course, but Ono is the best judoka,” Shavdatuashvili said. “He’s so strong, and he never makes mistakes. The best won.”Ono is not a person who reveals much in public, and he didn’t celebrate his second Olympic gold medal in any visible way on the floor of the venerable Budokan, a sacred place to him since his youth.Ono put his hand on his heart for the Japanese anthem, but after he accepted his medal from IOC President Thomas Bach, he shrugged it onto his neck and stood expressionless on the podium like he was waiting for a bus.But inside, Ono was aware of the moment. Before bowing and leaving the tatami, he stared for a long moment at the ceiling of martial arts’ spiritual home.“I wanted to inscribe every memory into my head,” he said.Ono’s repeat quest is over, but his games aren’t: He will compete in the first Olympic mixed team event Saturday, joining Japan’s best in another competition to cap what is shaping up to be a dominant exhibition. Japan has won four golds, one silver and one bronze from just the first three days in Tokyo, with eight more weight classes to go.“I’m already thinking about that team match right now,” Ono said. “I can’t relax. I just want to get a point for Japan.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Naohisa Takato claims Japan's 1st Tokyo gold with judo win

Naohisa Takato claims Japan's 1st Tokyo gold with judo win

Naohisa Takato has won Japan’s first gold medal at its home Olympics, beating Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei in the men’s 60-kilogram judo finalBy GREG BEACHAM AP Sports WriterJuly 24, 2021, 10:57 AM• 1 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — Naohisa Takato won Japan’s first gold medal at its home Olympics, beating Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei in the men’s 60-kilogram judo final on Saturday night.Kosovo’s Distria Krasniqi beat Japan’s Funa Tonaki in the women’s 48-kilogram final less than an hour before Takato made sure his team wouldn’t have a double heartbreak on the opening day of competition in its beloved homegrown martial art.Takato won his final three bouts in sudden-death golden score, but he took the final a bit anticlimactically after Yang committed too many fouls.The charismatic Takato’s success — and Tonaki’s heartbreaking, last-minute defeat — could provide a much-needed jolt of excitement for a nation still feeling profoundly ambivalent about these Olympics and discouraged by the scandals and coronavirus setbacks surrounding them.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Live at Budokan: Famed arena gets another Olympic spotlight

Live at Budokan: Famed arena gets another Olympic spotlight

The Nippon Budokan simply feels like a special place, even to those who don’t understand the astounding amount of sports and music history that has occurred under its elegant roofBy GREG BEACHAM AP Sports WriterJuly 23, 2021, 8:35 AM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — The Nippon Budokan sits serenely nestled in a verdant park at the heart of Tokyo. Visitors admire the elegant lines of its Buddhist temple-based design before they step into the graceful reverence of the arena, where countless martial arts champions have been crowned since it opened in 1964 with the first Olympic judo tournament.The Budokan simply feels like a special place, even to those who don’t understand the astounding amount of sports and music history that has occurred under the flowing roof meant to evoke Mount Fuji.Although no fans will be in attendance when the Budokan hosts judo and the Olympic debut of karate in the second Tokyo Games, this is so much more than a martial arts hall — the literal translation of its name.“This is where it all began,” said Neil Adams, a two-time Olympic judo silver medalist for Britain who competed at the Budokan in 1978. “The Budokan encompasses all of the qualities that our sport is about in Japan and beyond.”Widely hailed as the spiritual home of modern martial arts, the Budokan has become a shrine to the greatest achievements of the Japanese sporting spirit — particularly in judo, the homegrown discipline that resonates deeply in Japan. It has even hosted important sporting events of more dubious purity, such as Muhammad Ali’s bizarre fight against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in June 1976 under special rules now considered a forerunner to mixed martial arts.The Budokan also has thrived as a live music venue, hosting nearly all of the greatest talents of the past half-century.The Beatles were the first rock band to play it in 1966 over five landmark shows. Icons ranging from Bob Dylan and ABBA to Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin subsequently held landmark concerts inside. Dylan, Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne and Blur are among many artists to record well-regarded live albums there because of its combination of excellent acoustics and enthusiastic, well-behaved Japanese fans.This weekend, the Budokan also just might be where the beleaguered Japanese public starts to feel better about the agonizing process of hosting these Olympic Games, which have been battered by scandals and rendered unrecognizable by the coronavirus pandemic because of their inaccessibility to fans.But nearly 57 years after the Budokan hosted judo’s Olympic debut, the mostly empty arena hosts Japan’s homegrown sport again in some of the first competitions of the games. The stage is even set in a way that particularly pleases judo traditionalists like Adams: The Budokan’s tatami are on a raised platform with a surrounding safety area, just as in 1964.Naohisa Takato (men’s 60 kg) and Funa Tonaki (women’s 48 kg) will attempt to lift their nation’s spirits Saturday by claiming Japan’s first gold medals of these games. Japanese media are highly focused on the opening-day judokas, suggesting two golds could alter the public’s highly ambivalent perception of these games.Takato and Tonaki also hope to set off an avalanche of success for the powerhouse Japanese judo team, which could contend for every gold medal. The pressure is undeniably enormous, but Takato is prepared for what he’ll face in the Budokan after claiming a disappointing bronze in Rio de Janeiro.“Last time, I was too much focused on the leadoff role to give a boost to the team, which made me nervous,” Takato said. “So this time I won’t think too much about it. I’ll think about my victory and just hope to cheer the team up as a result of it. I believe Tonaki must grab the first gold medal for Japan, and I’ll follow her to be the first male medalist.”Less than a week after the eight-day judo tournament concludes with the first Olympic mixed team competition, the Budokan will host the Olympic debut of karate, another beloved Japanese martial art finally getting its opportunity to shine on greatest stage.The fighters who grace the Budokan floor will remember it forever — just ask Adams.He ranks his victories over his Japanese opponents 43 years ago among the greatest achievements of his sporting life. The Japanese crowds were always respectful, but ardently partisan — and when Adams won, the haunting silence that fell over the Budokan was unforgettable to him.Like everyone who loves judo, Adams is crushed by the absence of fans over the next week. The Budokan’s importance is inextricably tied to its Japanese crowds, whose combination of enthusiasm and respectfulness have helped to set apart this unique institution.“The atmosphere is what makes the Budokan such a different place to be, so I feel for all of these athletes,” Adams said. “The Olympic title is the most important thing. That’s what they’ll remember in the end. But it is a shame.”———Associated Press writer Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo contributed to this report.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

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