OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Maricet Espinosa (63 kg) defeats Yarden Gerbi (left) of Israel to win the silver medal. Photo: Ricardo López Hevia

No one can doubt the success of the Second Judo Grand Prix of Havana, given the high quality of the event and the public turnout, with spectators defying harsh winter conditions to attend the tournament held in the capital’s Ciudad Deportiva. 386 athletes from 66 countries came together in an attempt to make their mark during the first point-scoring competition of 2016; the results of which will contribute to their Olympic ranking.

It is worth nothing that athletes from 29 nations secured at least one medal during the competition, while of the total 176 matches in the women’s event, 101 (57%) were decided by ippon. The figure for the men’s division was even higher: 156 out of 252 (62%). Such statistics confirm the notable number of diverse techniques executed on Havana’s tatamis (mats).
Furthermore, Russia’s Renat Saidov (+100kg) was the only athlete able to block the path of Cuba’s Alex García (bronze) to the gold, and retain his crown won during the previous edition of the tournament, while nine medalists from the 2014 competition ascended the podium once again.

Amidst such a deluge, the host squads – 56 athletes, four per division – reclaimed their second place title won in the June 2014 edition with a total of two gold, two silver and four bronze medals (2-2-4), just behind Georgia (3-0-2). This time Cuba left its mark with a total of two gold, one silver and three bronze medals (2-1-3), as well as three fifth place and four seventh place spots, all providing points for the world rankings. Meanwhile Russia (3-0-1), Israel (2-0-1), Brazil (2-0-2), Hungary (1-4-2), Germany (1-2-2), the United States (1-1-1), Azerbaijan (1-0-2) and Ukraine (1-0-1) completed the top 10.

Cuba’s two gold medalists were none other than Idalys Ortiz (+78kg) from Artemisa and Asley González (90kg) of Villa Clara, the island’s standard-bearers for the competition. With this result both have qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, receiving 300 points and awarded an original artwork by painter Nelson Domínguez. The three other Cuban athletes to win medals and take greatest advantage of the home tournament were Maricet Espinosa (63kg - silver -180 points), Dayaris Mestre (48kg - bronze -120) and Alex García (+100kg - bronze -120).

FROM THE STANDS
Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation, wasn’t wrong when he noted that determination is the quality he most admires in the Cuban judokas, as demonstrated by the performances of novice competitors Melissa Hurtado and Yainlsidys Ponciano (48kg), Melisa Peñalver, Jorge Martínez and Iván Silva (81kg), as well as García.

The performance of Cuba’s judokas can generally be described as positive. However, several tactical shortcomings due to the lack of a strong strategy when facing high level opponents and at times insufficient technical elements against more demanding rivals, were evident handicaps.
Despite this, the 36 victories and 27 defeats in the men’s fights, and 37-33 for the women, suggest that Cuba has the potential to maintain its long established prestige in this sport, reaching its peak when a good part of the team was made up of judokas from the youth divisions, and even some of cadet age.

COACHES LOOK TOWARD RIO

Armando Padrón faces an enormous challenge. The current head coach of the women’s squad will be looking to maintain the high level of the division built up over decades by Ronaldo Veitía, who officially announced his retirement during the recently concluded Grand Prix. I say enormous because only Idalys Ortiz (+78kg) had the pleasure of savoring a bronze medal in the 2015 World Judo Championships, in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Justo Noda, guru of Cuban judo, highlights the importance of developing technique and strategy. Photo: Ricardo López Hevia

Regarding his athletes’ performances in the Grand Prix and the real chances of qualifying for Rio 2016, he explained that “the objective was to individually analyze each athlete’s performance, review their fighting strategy and measure how physical fitness improves as the demands increase. Idalys, Maricet and Dayaris did well. Onix Cortés (70kg) hadn’t competed since the Toronto Pan American Games due to an injury, and Yalennis Castillo (78kg) lost against Olympic Champion Kayla Harrison of the U.S. and the equally experienced Natalie Powell of the UK.”

Padrón has his hopes for qualification pegged on these five judokas. Reviewing their results from last year to date, Idalys (25 wins - 9 losses) stands out as the most consistent, followed by Mestre (17-12) and Espinosa (9-5).

In regards to the men, Asley (32-11) places first in the 100kg division, while José Armenteros (23-11), and Iván Silva (28-15) 81kg, complete the top three list.

Justo Noda has been imparting his knowledge to generations of judokas for over three decades. Many are unaware of the fact that Justo began his coaching career with the national women’s team, before landing command of the men’s division. This is why his thoughts on the current state of Cuban judo are vital. On the topic of his squad’s performance and other matters, he noted that “the quality of this tournament has been undeniable, therefore acting as hosts is an important starting point, above all for the team, who have many opportunities to assess their form, facing top level opponents. So far the majority have competed with skill, good technique and aggression; all this, without disregarding the performance of our opponents, who in almost all cases were superior. Looking at the competition results from a different quality perspective, 50% of fights were lost due to tactical weaknesses.
”Our Asian tour at the end of 2015 was very important for us. Facing Japanese, South Korean and Mongolian opponents always forces us to raise our game. Their judo is far more dynamic, more explosive when performing moves, their repertory is varied and different to that of the Europeans, who rely more on strength and have a static style of fighting.”

Describing each one of his athletes, Noda highlighted Asley’s throws, who benefited greatly from the 10-day tour of Japan: “Alex has raised his level, he faced stronger opponents with confidence and has even defeated them on a few occasions. Silva also gave a strong performance, and despite Armenteros’ unsuspecting arsenal of techniques, he needs more practice in order to reach optimum form. In the meantime we are working on his competitive strategies for all possible qualifying tournaments, something Magdiel Estrada is also thinking about,” Noda noted.
In this sense, the Cuban judo delegation will set off on a European tour which for the women’s division includes the Paris Grand Slam, Italian Open and Dusseldorf Grand Prix. Meanwhile, their male compatriots will also test their worth in the French capital and on German soil, before a change of location, with fights scheduled in Austria.

In the event that some of the hopefuls fail to qualify for the Rio Games, such as Onix and Magdiel, they will have another chance to do so in Georgia and Turkey and the continental Open in El Salvador, all of which are scheduled to take place before the Pan American Championships, also held in Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva.

Questioned about possible areas for improvement, Noda stressed the vital importance of working on strategy, gradually perfecting technical development, grabbing tactics, as well as establishing a project which includes training for new coaches, solidifying athletes’ technical training, studying rivals and varied fighting techniques.

Cuba (6-13-16) occupies the fifth spot on the Olympic Judo country medal chart; preceded by Japan (34-18-18), the birthplace of the discipline; France (12-8-24); South Korea (11-14-15) and China (8-6-3). Also attending the Rio Games are Russia and Georgia, countries which left their mark in both editions of the Havana Grand Prix. The qualifying final line-up will be revealed on Saturday, August 6, meanwhile the Cuban delegation is armed and ready to compete.