The third IJF event of the 2016 Olympic season, the Dusseldorf Grand Prix, will be the strongest Grand Prix of this four-year Olympic cycle thus far. The three-day event takes place at the Mitsubishi Electric Halle from Friday 19 – Sunday 21 February. Here's five things to look out for from Dusseldorf 2016:
1. Olympic and world champion competes for the first time in 2016
Olympic and world champion Matsumoto Kaori (JPN) returns to action on Friday in a mouthwatering -57kg category. All the leading protagonists will compete in Germany with Matsumoto the fighter that the media, fans and judoka, will all be closely observing.
The world number six has managed to look spectacular and fallible in this Olympic cycle with her fine World Championship 2015 victory being followed by a second round exit at the Tokyo Grand Slam - albeit against Rafaela Silva (BRA) who executed a breathtaking flying juji-gatame - which sums up her form.
Following her London 2012 triumph Matsumoto took close to a two-year break from the sport before making a successful return at this event in 2014.
The Japanese team have been very selective about where they have fielded ‘The Assassin’ having only been unleashed on the Grand Slam stage in Japan since her comeback and in sporadic appearances on the IJF World Judo Tour. The 28-year-old, who will be followed by the IJF TV team during the post-event training camp, will be expected to bounce back on day one in Dusseldorf.
Matsumoto Kaori (JPN) will need to be at her supreme best in Dusseldorf
2. Beka Gviniashivili (GEO) fighting to keep Olympic dream alive
Georgia’s boy wonder Beka Gviniashivili has conceded the -90kg slot for Rio 2016 to his teammate and three-time world medallist Varlam Liparteliani. Gviniashivili lost to Liparteliani, 26, in three of their four meetings in 2015 despite enjoying the bragging rights in their thrilling home Tbilisi Grand Prix final.
With Liparteliani on the brink of one more Olympic challenge after a premature exit at London 2012, World Judo Masters winner Gviniashivili has kept his Rio 2016 dream alive by moving up to the -100kg category. Despite being one of the shortest judoka in the -90kg category, the gutsy Georgian made an impressive start to life with the heavier weights as he finished fifth at the Tokyo Grand Slam after losing out only to world champion Haga Ryunosuke and French king Cyrille Maret.
Fast forward two months and more of the same was expected from Gviniashivili at the Paris Grand Slam 2016. However, Paris debutant Philip Awiti-Alcaraz (GBR), a towering 22-year-old from London, had the physical attributes of an out-and-out -100kg judoka and threw Gviniashivili for ippon in 26 seconds.
The Georgian is now ranked 77th in the world in the -100kg category and is currently out of contention on the Olympic Games qualification rankings. However, the youngster still has time and will grow stronger in the category with every outing and training camp and a run of medals between now and the World Judo Masters in May (Guadalajara, Mexico) - which is the final event of the Olympic qualification phase - would be enough to secure a summer trip to Brazil.
Gviniashvili is aiming to recapture that winning feeling
3. Russia’s three London 2012 Olympic champions set for mixed fortunes
Arsen Galstyan (-60kg), Mansur Isaev (-73kg) and Tagir Khaibulaev (-100kg) were Russia’s heroes at London 2012 as they all won gold to send their country to the top of the judo medal table and the star trio will all compete in Dusseldorf.
World number 27 Galstyan moved up to the -66kg category in 2015 and has won Grand Prix medals and a Grand Slam silver (Abu Dhabi) in his new weight but is still yet to top a -66kg podium which has seen him on the periphery for his country while world number four Mikhail Pulyaev and world number eight Kamal-Khan Magomedov are leading the race for Rio.
World number 68 Mansur Isaev has stayed in the -73kg category and has struggled to rediscover his form. Isaev has won two medals from his 12 international competitions since London and has not won a medal in his last seven events. Russia’s leading contenders in the -73kg category for Rio are world number six Denis Iartcev and world number 11 Musa Mogushkov.
World number 19 Tagir Khaibulaev has been the best performer of Russia’s Olympic three champions since London and is the most likely to be defending their title at Rio 2016. Khaibulaev has been in medal contention in the majority of his IJF World Judo Tour events and has won the Ulaanbaatar Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in this cycle. The veteran champion has to keep pace with world number 13 Adlan Bisultanov and both judoka will compete in Dusseldorf.
London 2012 Olympic champion Khaibulaev (blue judogi) is still in contention for Rio 2016
4. South Korea’s relentless pursuit of Olympic glory
South Korea finished second in the medal table in Paris with three gold and four bronze medals. As one of the sport’s strongest nations, South Korea have recently stepped up their Rio 2016 aspirations by sending their finest male and female judoka to all IJF World Judo Tour events and have reaped the rewards. A 20-strong South Korean team will travel to Dusseldorf including their three Paris Grand Slam winners.
World bronze medallist An Changrim (-73kg) has been on the medal podium at his last 11 events including gold at the Paris and Abu Dhabi Grand Slams to become the world number one and a major contender for Rio 2016 glory.
Kim Jan-Di (-57kg) is enjoying the form of her life after winning two Grand Prix and the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam last year before opening her 2016 campaign with gold in Paris. The world number three is one of the form judoka in the category and is only getting better.
Former world bronze medallist Kim Seongyeon (-70kg) was South Korea’s third gold medallist in Paris. The victory was Kim’s first on the Grand Slam stage in a notoriously competitive weight category and the world number nine is yet another fighter on the rise for her team.
An 'The Man' on top of the podium at Paris 2016
5. Hosts Germany out to dominate
Hosts Germany have entered a 51-strong team with 26 men and 25 women fighting over the three days of competition. Germany possesses one of the strongest team’s in world judo and can use the event to look at their third and fourth choice athletes as well as their leading names.
The home team has intense domestic rivalries throughout their roster in the build-up to Rio 2016 which has provided great action and drama on the IJF World Judo Tour. German judoka will undoubtedly clash again in Dusseldorf and every win will have ramifications with points at stake for Olympic qualification. Intrigue surrounds categories such as -81kg which houses two-time Grand Slam winner Sven Maresch and European Games bronze medallist Alexander Wieczerzak and -100kg which features world silver medallist Karl-Richard Frey and Olympic bronze medallist Dimitri Peters.
Wieczerzak (white judogi) and teammate Maresch are familiar opponents