The judo world tour returns as Israel hosts historic Grand Prix
The 2019 IJF World Judo Tour begins with the inaugural Tel Aviv Grand Prix (24-26 of January, live on Olympic Channel), the first event of a 20-leg series that ends with the Shenzhen Masters in December.
The tour visits Europe, Asia, Africa, North-America and Oceania, and features six Grand Slams (Paris, Dusseldorf, Ekaterinburg, Baku, Abu Dhabi, Osaka) and 10 Grand Prix events (Tel Aviv, Marrakesh, Tbilisi, Antalya, Hohhot, Montreal, Budapest, Zagreb, Tashkent, The Hague).
The highlight of the season will be the World Championships taking place in late August in Tokyo, Japan, at the iconic Budokan. That competition will also serve as a test event for the 2020 Olympic Games.
History in Israel
Israel hosts a leg of the judo World Tour for the first time in its history, with nearly 400 judoka from 53 countries taking part.
Tel Aviv staged the European Championships last year, and the addition of this Grand Prix to the calendar was announced in October at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam.
That was a symbolic move, following Israel's problems at the 2017 edition of the event in the United Arab Emirates, where its athletes were forced to compete under the IJF flag.
"We are able to send to the world a message of solidarity, friendship and peace" said IJF president Marius Vizer as Israel agreed to organise events of the World Judo Tour in 2019 and 2020.
Last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Slam marked the first time an Israeli delegation participated in a Gulf state under its own flag.
In that occasion -81kg European champion Sagi Muki was able to sing the Israeli national anthem. The -81kg European champion is one of the 43 athletes selected by the hosts in Tel Aviv, alongside -100kg world number three Peter Paltchik and +100kg Rio 2016 bronze medallist Or Sasson.
Who to look out for
Olympic champion Majlinda Kelmendi is one of the stars on show in Tel Aviv.
Kosovo's first ever Olympic medallist hopes to move back up the world rankings from 15th position, after a back problem forced her to skip most of the past season. She ended 2018 on a high note with a second place in Abu Dhabi and a title in Tashkent.
The 27-year-old hasn't revealed her future plans yet, but she's expected to face Japan's teenage superstar Uta Abe in a dream match-up, probably in February at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam.
In Tokyo, Kelmendi will also aim for her first world title since 2014, a third in total.
Big Ted back in training!
Double Olympic champion Teddy Riner has resumed training in France after a year out of competition as he targets a third gold medal at Tokyo 2020.
The 29-year-old spent the last two months in Japan and United States for some short practice sessions and now is motivated for the next challenge.
"In my sport, there is only one triple Olympic champion, Tadahiro Nomura" - the 10-time world champion told AFP. "But if I win, I will be the only one to hold four Olympic medals. Three of them are gold, so that's a challenge, it's the challenge of a career."
Riner is unlikely to compete individually at the 2019 world championships in Tokyo. He could take part in the team event, which will make its Olympic debut in 2020.
Teenagers to watch
A flurry of new young stars are expected to leave their mark in 2019.
On the women's side there's Ukrainian sensation Daria Bilodid: the youngest world champion ever was undeafeated in 2018, claiming seven titles.
Japan's world champion Uta Abe is another precocious one: the 18-year-old won her first senior event when she was only 16 and she is unbeaten since 2016.
19-year-old Romane Dicko has already been nicknamed 'the female Teddy Riner' and so far is living up to the hype around her. In 2018 France's new heavyweight contender claimed the Tbilisi Grand Prix and the European title in the +78kg, before undergoing shoulder surgery. She made her return in December and will feature in Tel Aviv.
As for the men, watch out for Japan's Sanshiro Murao: the junior silver world medallist showed glimpses of his talent finishing third at his senior World Tour debut in Osaka.
Another 18-year-old, Lasha Bekauri of Georgia, is ready to start his senior career after impressing at the judo world championships in the Bahamas with a gold medal in the -90kg category.
The 2019 IJF World Tour Calendar
Jan 24-26 Tel Aviv Grand Prix
Feb 9-10 Paris Grand Slam
Feb 22-24 Dusseldorf Grand Slam
Mar 8-10 Marrakesh Grand Prix
Mar 15-17 Ekaterinburg Grand Slam
Mar 29-31 Tbilisi Grand Prix
Apr 5-7 Antalya Grand Prix
May 10-12 Baku Grand Slam
May 24-26 Hohhot Grand Prix
Jul 5-7 Montreal Grand Prix
Jul 12-14 Budapest Grand Prix
July 26-28 Zagreb Grand Prix
Aug 25-31 senior World Championships (Tokyo)
Sep 21-22 Perth Oceania Open
Oct 4-6 Tashkent Grand Prix
Oct 16-19 junior World Championships (Marrakesh)
Oct 25-27 Abu Dhabi Grand Slam
Nov 15-17 The Hague Grand Prix
Nov 22-24 Osaka Grand Slam
Dec 13-15 Shenzhen Masters