For the first time ever, Britain will send out a full judo team of 14 competitors at an Olympic Games with realistic prospects of making up for the medal drought that occured in both Athens and Beijing.
Were Team GB to grab a first-ever gold medal in the sport in London this summer, it would cap a fantastic two years for Edinburgh’s “Mr Judo” George Kerr, who will be attending his NINTH games in an official capacity.
From referee to coach to chairman and now president of the Great Britain Judo Association, when Kerr was made one of only a handful of 10th dans in the world in 2010, it kick-started a remarkable chain of events.
Soon afterwards this bus driver’s son from Leith was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan, where judo has its ancestral home, to be followed by a CBE presented by the Queen.
“It’s taken me an awful long time to become an overnight sensation,” laughs George, now 74, but as active as ever in running The Club, a judo and fitness establishment near his home in Leith with wife, Pauline.
Self-deprecating he may be, but there is no disguising the pride George rightly feels – or the sense of anticipation that courses his veins – when discussing the contribution of Scottish judo he has long championed to the GB cause.
There are five GB team members who train at the national performance centre in Ratho, and, while acknowledging that experienced pair Euan Burton and Sarah Clark are among the more fancied of that contingent, George has been around long enough never to write off anybody’s chances, particularly Sally Conway, James Austin and Chris Sherrington, who will also be benefiting from facilities north of the Border.
“There is nobody being taken along to make up numbers,” declares Kerr, adding: “It might have been the case at one time where sportsmen or women were happy just to earn a Games place.
“Nowadays and especially when funding is linked to performance, everybody will take to the mat believing they can win.
“There are four high performance centres in British judo and Ratho has got to be the best.
“Not only has it produced these five Olympians but, for me, Billy Cusack is the best mat-side coach in the game.
“Nobody can read a contest like Billy and he is also a great motivator.
“After the two barren Games, I’m expecting two or three medals.
“Of the contenders, Euan might just be timing his effort in the same way that took Andy Murray to the Wimbledon final.
“Murray didn’t have the best of times in the build-up event at Queen’s Club, remember.
“Similarly Euan hasn’t repeated the amazing form shown when he went out to Japan and captured the Kano Cup.
“His ranking has slipped a bit but if he gets a bit of luck and stays healthy then he can take a medal – just as he did twice in the past at World Championships.
“Likewise Sarah Clark, who can draw on the experience of two previous Olympics.
“Sarah is a past European champion and I definitely think she will be in the top five of her category. As for Sally Conway, she has won international tournaments and both James Austin and Chris Sherrington, an ex-marine, are there on merit and will be fighting as if their lives depend on it.
“Of course, among the 200 competitors in both men’s and women’s events there will be wildcards permitted to take part because judo wants to foster the sport around the world and that can lead to favourable draws.
“Expect anybody who has competed successfully in Europe to have a better chance.”
If the current powerbase lies on his own continent, the young George Kerr knew he had to seize an opportunity to study and practise in Japan.
However, on return he was to miss out on Olympic selection as he was considered a professional on the grounds that he’d set up his own club.
“By the time I had successfully appealed, the trials had been held and I was left out” he recalled, adding: “I threw a good old-fashioned huff and went away to build up my business starting up the Edinburgh Club in original premises near what is now The Playhouse Theatre. I’m a great believer in one door opening as another closes and the Edinburgh Club helped me become a coach who was invited to assist the Austrian team at Moscow, Los Angeles and Seoul Games.
“My greatest Olympic moment was coaching Austrian Peter Seisenbacher to double Olympic gold, in 1984 and 1988.”
That was something no judoka had previously achieved but Kerr’s Olympic journey had actually started back in 1972.
“I was asked to referee in the Munich Games which will be remembered for the massacre,” recalled Kerr.
Palestinian terrorist organisation Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches as well as a West German police officer.
“I wasn’t staying in the village but I attended the memorial service which took place in the Olympic Stadium during a pause in the Games.
“The decision to continue was taken by the head of the IOC, Avery Brundage, and I think it was right not to give into terrorism. Ten years later, I was invited by the Olympic Solidarity Movement to take a coaching clinic in Israeli where I met one of their wrestlers who had been caught up in the massacre.”
Thankfully, other Olympic memories are happier for this Leith Academy former pupil, who anticipated channelling his sporting energies into rugby until his dad suggested he take up judo.
For example, by the time the Atlanta Games arrived in 1996, George had been installed as chairman of the British Judo Association which required him to walk behind the flag at the Opening Ceremony.
“It was a proud moment but I also remember the occasion for losing my stride pattern and walking into the back of Steve Redgrave (now Sir Steve) who almost dropped the flag as I rapped his ankle.”
At another Games, George attended in the same capacity he was as proud as anyone of the achievement of Kate Howey in capturing a medal. That success was partly responsible for me accompanying Princess Anne, then an IOC member, to an impromptu meeting with Kate.”
Kerr was later invited to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a sixth dan judoka, at the European Championships in Vienna last year only for the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, which grounded flights, to intervene.
“I’d have liked to have met Mr Putin who apparently caused some indignation when, after a fortune had been spent on security, he opted for ten minutes with the Austrian president – and six hours watching the judo championships!” said Kerr.