Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

The tagline "Judo's Coming Home" has been happily and widely employed in the months leading up to the International Judo Federation's (IJF) World Championships, which have begun in Tokyo today.

But as the sport returns to its spiritual home, and the very venue in which it had its incarnation as an Olympic event, another tagline appears to be increasingly apt – "Vizer's Coming Home".

Four years after what looked like a terminal bust-up with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and in particular its President, Thomas Bach, Marius Vizer, President of the IJF, has been not so much welcomed back into the fold as lauded and applauded.

On the eve of the Championships, at the IJF Gala Dinner, Vizer received the IOC President's Trophy – the organisation's most prestigious trophy – for his "remarkable contribution to judo and to the Olympic Movement".

The award – handed over on behalf of Bach by Australia's veteran IOC mover and shaker John Coates – has raised speculation that Vizer could soon take a further step on the path of reconciliation by being appointed as an IOC member next year.

"Of course, it was a significant gesture for me," Vizer told insidethegames. "But it was recognition for the judo family and our achievements."

There is certainly much to celebrate about the latest version of the Championships, which will serve as a test event for next year's Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

These World Championships are the biggest ever in terms of the number of participants – a record 841 judoka from 147 different nations will be taking part.

And after the individual men's and women's divisions, the mixed team event will conclude the Championships next Sunday (September 1), with 15 nations taking part.

IJF President Marius Vizer, right, receives the IOC President's Trophy, on behalf of IOC President Thomas Bach, from Australia's John Coates ©IJF
IJF President Marius Vizer, right, receives the IOC President's Trophy, on behalf of IOC President Thomas Bach, from Australia's John Coates ©IJF

Asked how much of a pointer the imminent World Championships will be to predicting the Tokyo 2020 Games medallists, Vizer told insidethegames: "The World Judo Championships will not only be a landmark but also an assessment of the value of the athlete and of the sport before the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

"The participation in the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, only one year prior to the Olympic Games, constitutes a great challenge but also an honour for the athlete and the national delegation.

"The crucial moment for our sport lies in the fact that for one year, the World Judo Championships and the Olympic Games are held in Japan, a country that provided humanity with a sport, an art and a philosophy contributing to the betterment of the society, educating and fostering the youth in the light of the values and principles of judo."

And Vizer revealed that, at this historically significant moment in the sport's pathway, that there will be a timely reflection upon the road already travelled. 

"On this occasion we will celebrate this meaningful event by making an award to the best female and male judoka of all Olympic Games editions," he said.

The event venue of the Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo has witnessed many evenings of high excitement since being built to stage judo's first appearance at an Olympic Games in 1964.

Among those who have provided entertainment in this 14,500-capacity venue down the years are The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. But aside from classic musical performances, there has been a long succession of professional wrestling matches and, naturally, given that Budokan translates as "martial arts hall", of kendo, karate, aikido and judo contests.

In the space of the next year the Budokan atmosphere is being taken to stratospheric levels once again.

And four years beyond that the sport will return to what many would regard as its second home, as Paris stages the 2024 Olympics. Judo is on the brink of an extraordinary, supercharging opportunity.

It is a good time to be President of the IJF – as Vizer, who lost his position as President of SportAccord after breathtaking criticism of Bach and the Agenda 2020 changes he was seeking to introduce to the Olympic Movement – happily acknowledges.

The Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo that is staging the IJF World Championships ©Getty Images
The Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo that is staging the IJF World Championships ©Getty Images

"The World Judo Championships and the Olympic Games are the most important events of our sport," he said.

"The World Judo Championships being held in Tokyo, with only one year prior to the Olympic Games, will delight the judo community with a unique event as judo returns to its homeland after 55 years since judo became an Olympic sport in 1964.

"Tokyo 2020 will represent a re-launch and revival of our sport after 55 years since it came into existence in the Olympic Family and at the same time, it marks the homecoming of judo.

"Moreover, Tokyo 2020 will be a promotion for the further edition of the Olympics, in 2024, in Paris."   

The phrase "It's Coming Home", popularised in the song Three Lions which celebrated the staging of the 1996 UEFA European Football Championships in England, where association football began, has since been used in countless, less valid contexts.

But the renovation of this tag in the case of judo returning to its own homeland is entirely just.

Judo was established in Japan in 1882 by Jigoro Kano, based on an integration of traditional Japanese self-defence forms.

Fittingly, the first edition of the World Championships took place in Tokyo in 1956, being held at the Kuramae Kokugikan.

There were no weight classes at this point and a home judoka, Shokichi Natsui, became the first world judo champion after defeating fellow countryman Yoshihiko Yoshimatsu.

Two years later the fledgling World Championships returned to the same city, being held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

In 1961, the World Championships had their first non-Japanese host when they were staged in Paris, where Dutch judoka Anton Geesink defeated the defending champion, Japan's Koji Sone, to become the first non-Japanese openweight world champion.

Anton Geesink of The Netherlands receives the gold medal after winning the openweight category at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics ©Getty Images
Anton Geesink of The Netherlands receives the gold medal after winning the openweight category at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics ©Getty Images

Almost 60-years on, Tokyo and Paris stand ready to serve as the hub of the world sport once again – and a non-Japanese men's world champion, France's Teddy Riner, prepares to defend his Olympic heavyweight title.

At those landmark Tokyo 1964 Olympics, Geesink won the openweight category but the other three golds on offer went to home judokas.

The IJF World Championships, now in the mixed format, returned to Japan in 1995, when they were held in Chiba, in 2003, when they were held in Osaka, and in 2010 when, although they returned to Tokyo, they were held in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Thus the sport now contemplates a return to its Olympic mothership before taking centre stage at the 15,000-capacity Paris-Bercy Arena in 2024.

The IJF World Championships returned to Paris in 1979, in 1982 – in the form of the second Women's Championships before the event became mixed – and in 1997 and 2011.

The frequency of their hosting underlines the position of Japan and France as the two powerhouses of judo.

In a piece published in January last year, the IJF assessed the profound role played in the sport by France, pointing out that it had more than 600,000 practicing judoka involved in a network of 5,700 clubs.

This pre-eminence is reflected also in sporting statistics.

In terms of an individual powerhouse, Riner, tops the all-time list of male medallists with 11 medals, 10 of them gold. He, incidentally, is giving these World Championships a miss as he attempts to extend his career to the defence of his Olympic title in Tokyo next year and, he hopes, a further defence when the Games come to his home city of Paris in 2024.

But while Riner may not be taking part, he has been very much involved in the Tokyo judo scene, having trained recently in the Japanese capital where he sparred with the man he beat to the Rio 2016 Olympic title, Hisayoshi Harasawa.

Rio 2016 champion Teddy Riner and Japan's Hisayoshi Harasawa in action during last month's Grand Prix final in Montreal ©IJF
Rio 2016 champion Teddy Riner and Japan's Hisayoshi Harasawa in action during last month's Grand Prix final in Montreal ©IJF

Riner returned to the IJF Grand Prix circuit in July following a two-year lay-off, and beat Harasawa to earn the title in Montreal, although it took three minutes in golden score to do so.

The multiple champion is in Tokyo in his role as chairman of the IJF Athletes' Commission rather than taking to the tatami.

A scan down the men's individual all-time medal list also reflects the sense of Japan and France being at the heart of the sport. Naoya Ogawa is second in the list, having won seven over-95 kilograms medals between 1987 and 1995, four of them gold.

France's David Douilllet is joint third on the list with four golds between 1993 and 1997, level with two other Japanese judoka – Shozo Fujii and Yasuhiro Yamashita.

And there are four other Japanese judoka in the top 10.

It is a fair bet that Japan and France will be adding to their global medal collection over the next few days in an event which involves athletes seeking 56 individual medals.

After the 14 individual events, the new mixed team event will take place with the Japanese team the strong favourites.

The Japanese selection for the impending World Championships was announced soon after the staging of an intriguing edition of the All Japan Championships.

At the official press conference, it was announced that Hashimoto Soichi, the 2017 individual world champion and 2018 silver medallist in the lightweight under-73kg category, would not be selected, having lost to the Rio 2016 champion, Shohei Ono.

Meanwhile, Harasawa is looking likely to deliver a huge home flourish in the absence of Riner.

And Japan will be hoping to tilt more medals their way in the women's competition with competitors of the quality of defending champions Uta Abe in the under-52kg and Chizuru Arai in the under-70kg.

Eighteen-year-old Uta will be on a likely collision course with the Rio 2016 champion Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo, which could provide one of the Championships' memorable meetings.

Ono's weight category includes South Korea's world champion An Changrim, while another battle royal could be in prospect in the women's under-63kg category, which contains France's world champion Clarisse Agbegnenou and Slovenia's Rio 2016 gold medallist Tina Trstenjak.

Japan has earned almost twice as many Olympic medals as its nearest challenger, France, and has as many golds as its next four challengers – France, South Korea, China and Cuba – put together.

The World Championships are underway in Tokyo ©Getty Images
The World Championships are underway in Tokyo ©Getty Images

Aside from a rapt audience in the Budokan, the spectacle is expected to be enjoyed by television viewers in more than 130 countries.

How dominant does Vizer expect the host nation to be in Tokyo in terms of medals at the World Championships, and Olympics? And how important will it be for Japan to do well?

"I estimate that at the 2019 World Judo Championships, Japan will achieve excellent results," he said. 

"At the same time, I am convinced that at the Olympic Games, the participation of other countries on the podium will be even greater than at the current World Championships."

Seven women's gold medals at the Rio Games were shared by seven nations. Does Vizer believe this shows the balance of power is more evenly distributed in women's judo than in men's – or does he think the World Championships will see certain nations moving ahead?

"I believe that the presence of female athletes with a quota of 50 per cent at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games constitutes a paramount event," he responded. 

"We have an equal quota for women and men for the first time at the Games.

"And having a first participation of judo in the Olympic Games with a mixed team event will give more expressiveness to the values of judo. 

"Solidarity and unity will contribute essentially to the promotion of judo worldwide and to the rise in popularity within the Olympic Movement."