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Six karatekas seek Tokyo slots

Joaquin Henson (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Six kumite specialists, three men and three women, will attempt to represent the Philippines when karate makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo this year but it won’t be an easy mission as they’ll go through the World Qualifiers in Paris on June 11-13 with the door shut to book tickets via the ranking route.

The aspirants are Junna Tsukii (55 kg), Joane Orbon (61 kg) and Jamie Lim (+61 kg) in women and Alwyn Batican (67 kg), Ivan Agustin (75 kg) and Sharief Afif (+75 kg) in men. Karate Pilipinas Sports Federation president Ricky Lim said yesterday the Philippines will try to qualify only in kumite (sparring) as the karatekas in kata (form) will focus on training for the Vietnam SEA Games late this year.

Over the weekend, four of the six Olympic hopefuls checked in for bubble training at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna. Lim, Batican, Agustin and Afif are now in Calamba with sparring partner Jason Macaalay and coaches Sonny Montalvo and Jonel Perania. Another sparmate Matthew Manantan will join the team later. Tsukii is in Japan training with her father Shin while Orbon is based in San Francisco. The plan is to gather the six aspirants for a training camp in Turkey with head coach Okay Arpa from the end of next month to May 15. “Matthew’s PCR test didn’t come out on time kaya he was left behind so habol na lang pag-labas ng test result,” said Lim. “They’re very strict in Calamba which is good. They’re all still quarantined in their respective rooms until tomorrow (Tuesday).”

Lim said he’s considering to send a team to the Karate 1-Premier League tournament in Lisbon, Portugal, on Feb. 19-21 but nothing is sure at the moment. “We don’t even know if it will push through because of the pandemic surge in Europe,” he said. “Our original plan was to leave Calamba on Feb. 14 if we participate in Lisbon. Except for Junna, our players haven’t done face-to-face sparring for about 10 months. But they’re all in good shape, working on their strength, conditioning and stamina by themselves. What they lack is actual sparring to get back their timing, reaction and distance.”

Tsukii, 29, trained in Serbia for a month late last year and has stayed on track in her timetable for the Paris qualifiers. She won the gold in -50 kg at the 2019 SEA Games and is the country’s highest-ranked karateka. Tsukii is sponsored by Ajinomoto and a Japanese media darling as the first Fil-Japanese who could qualify in karate in the Olympics. “There are three ways to make it,” explained Lim. “First is through the world ranking system. If you’re in the top four, you’re in. Junna, however, is No. 10. Second is through the regional or continental ranking system, in our case, Asia. The top two are qualified but Junna is No. 4. The third is through the world qualifiers where the top three finishers in each event go to Tokyo.  In Paris, those who’ve already qualified won’t participate so we should have better chances but it’ll still be tough. Once you reach the semifinals, it’s a round-robin among the four and the top three will qualify for Tokyo.” Another route is through the tripartite commission invitation or wildcard where the IOC, Association of National Olympic Committees and the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations will assign two tickets per karate event to countries with few qualified athletes under the principle of universal representation.

Aside from Tsukii, two other women are in serious contention. Orbon, 26, took the bronze in 61 kg at the 2019 SEA Games and the gold at the Kharkiv Premier League Open in Ukraine last year. The Fil-Am is a three-time junior world champion, 10-time US champion and three-time Pan-American Karate Federation champion. Lim, 23, was a gold medalist at the 2019 SEA Games, the 2019 Amator Spor Haftasi Championships in Turkey and the Kharkiv Open.

In the Olympics, six gold medals will be at stake in kumite with 10 players in each weight class, three for men and three for women. Two gold medals will be up for grabs in kata, one for men and one for women. A country is allowed up to eight athletes to qualify, four men and four women, with a maximum of one in each event. So far, 30 of the 60 slots for kumite have been allocated to 16 countries, including host Japan, China (one), Chinese-Taipei (one), Kazakhstan (one) and Iran (four).

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