With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics just over a month away, there was an extra edge to this year’s International Judo Federation (IJF) World Championships in Hungarian capital Budapest.
No previous edition of the IJF’s flagship event had been held so close to an Olympic Games, adding further intrigue to competition at the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena.
For judoka already guaranteed a place at Tokyo 2020, you would not have blamed them for opting out of the World Championships to conserve energy and avoid risking injury ahead of the Games.
For others that had missed out on a place at the Olympics, this was a chance for them to prove selectors wrong.
For some this was an opportunity to seal their ticket to the Japanese capital as National Federations left team selection until to the last moment.
Christa Deguchi made the decision to switch allegiances from Japan to Canada in a bid to qualify for the Games.
And had the Olympics been held last year as originally planned, there is a strong chance the 25-year-old would have gone to Tokyo having been crowned world champion in the women’s under-57 kilograms category in 2019.
But the two-time Pan American champion and five-time Grand Slam winner now faces missing the Games after losing her world title to Canadian team mate Jessica Klimkait.
Deguchi was knocked out in the semi-finals by Japan’s Momo Tamaoki before losing a bronze-medal match against Germany’s Theresa Stoll and then watching on as Klimkait secured the single qualifying spot with victory in the final.
It was a sickening moment for Deguchi, but you have got to give Klimkait credit for seizing her opportunity to win world gold for the first time in a pressure-cooker environment.
Having won four world titles, France’s Clarisse Agbegnenou could have skipped the tournament in Budapest to focus all her efforts on gearing up for the Games, where she will bid to secure a first Olympic gold.
But Agbegnenou felt the World Championships provided the ideal preparation for Tokyo 2020 - and her decision was vindicated, winning the women’s under-63kg crown for the fifth time.
"I was thinking about whether I should do the worlds but I thought you never know what can happen at the Olympics," said Agbegnenou, who defeated Andreja Leški of Slovenia in the final.
"[If I didn’t come here] next year I would not be world champion and you don’t know if you are going to have a gold at the Olympics, so you are going to be left with nothing.
"I thought I am going to fight for it and it should be part of my preparations so I had to go for it and get the fifth world title."
Many first-time winners were crowned in Budapest, with Belgium’s Matthias Casse triumphing in the men’s under-81kg division, Yago Abuladze of ROC in the men’s under-60kg, Barbara Matić of Croatia in the women’s under-70kg and Germany’s Anna-Maria Wagner in the women’s under-78kg.
Japan also underlined its strength in depth as Natsumi Tsunoda and Kokoro Kageura achieved individual success for the first time, adding to victories for Sarah Asahina, Ai Shishime and Joshiro Maruyama.
It has been 10 years since Japan last failed to finish at the top of the medal standings and the Asian nation continued its decade of dominance with another table-topping performance.
With Olympic champion Shohei Ono and two-time world champion Uta Abe set to come back into the team, the Japanese juggernaut will be hard to stop when it rolls up at Tokyo 2020 next month.
When Japan last finished second in the medals table, France was the top dog, but the nation will go into the Games on the back of falling outside the top three in the table for the first time since 2005, finishing down in fifth place.
While France failed to match previous success, Georgia and Spain continue to show great progress in the sport.
Lasha Shavdatuashvili came out on top in the men’s under-73kg division, while 21-year-old Tato Grigalashvili looks like another Georgian to watch out for after producing a series of dominant showings before losing to Casse in the final.
Nikoloz Sherazadishvili was born in Georgia but will be a big gold-medal hope for Spain after being crowned world champion in the under-90kg category.
Sherazadishvili came under pressure against Davlat Bobonov before producing one of the highlights of the World Championships when he drove the Uzbek fighter to the floor with an ouchi gari to score an ippon in the golden-score period.
Day five was a real high point across the eight days courtesy of Sherazadishvil’s match-winning moment and Krisztián Tóth’s brilliant bronze on home soil.
With crowds allowed into the arena from Monday (June 7), the fans yearned for success whenever a Hungarian judoka took to the mat.
Ranked number four in the world and a former world silver medallist, Tóth had plenty of pressure on his shoulders.
But roared on by the supporters, Tóth delivered a bronze medal after bringing down Mongolian giant Altanbagana Gantulga.
"It was a great experience and I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders standing here with a medal around my neck, so I would like to thank everyone who came out and supported me," said Tóth.
"It was amazing to see many people in the crowd, old sportsman, family and friends and when everyone is celebrating at the same time that’s when you realise that it’s all worth it."
Asked what it meant to the judo community in Hungary to stage the World Championships, Tóth said: "We have been on the World Judo Tour for a long time and we are a small country.
"We have been trying to make judo popular and establish our place in the international judo scene."
Hungary had never previously staged the World Championships but put on a superb show with more than 660 judoka battling it out across 14 divisions.
After last year’s edition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was a thrill to see the event return, especially with fans present.
IJF President Marius Vizer expected it to be a World Championships "like no other", played out against the backdrop of a global health crisis, but there was no change at the top of the standings, with Japan continuing to reign supreme.