Wesley Botton
Chief sports writer
2 minute read
16 Jan 2016
2:00 pm

Piontek at crossroads

Wesley Botton

‘150 international ranking points the magical figure’.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 26: Gold medalist Zack Piontek of South Africa poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s -90kg Judo at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre Precinct during day three of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on July 26, 2014 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

With four more opportunities to lift himself three places up the world rankings, judoka Zack Piontek cannot afford any slip-ups this season as his Olympic qualifying campaign continues this weekend.

Piontek will compete at the African Open tournament in Tunisia tomorrow, desperate to narrow the gap on the men ranked ahead of him in the build-up to Rio, as the only South African to be in contention for a Games spot in his sporting code.

The Commonwealth Games gold medallist was 25th in the world when the latest rankings were released by the International Judo Federation last month, needing to climb to 22nd position by the end of May to meet the criteria for selection.

“At a rough estimate I think I need about 150 international ranking points to qualify for the Olympic Games,” the Tuks-HPC athlete said yesterday.

He held 664 points in the global rankings after turning out at nine qualifying events in 2014 and 2015, and he was 76 points behind Sherali Juraev of Uzbekistan, who held 22nd place.

With numerous other athletes on the fringe of qualifying, Piontek remained confident he could pick up more points than those ranked ahead of him.

After this weekend’s competition, he had three more events scheduled in his attempt to leapfrog his opposition.

“My plan is to sort of chip away to get to 150 points,” Piontek said.

In an effort to ensure he was fully prepared for the 2016 campaign, Piontek trained with retired Dutch athlete Mark Huizinga at a recent pre-season camp in Bloemfontein. Huizinga won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in Piontek’s weight category and earned five European titles during his career.

“I had the opportunity to fight against him.

“What was nice is the fact that he went out of his way to teach me techniques and tactics which he thinks might stand me to good stead in my quest to qualify for the Games.”

After enjoying a solid season at continental level last year, Piontek was eager to qualify for his first Olympics.

In 2015, he earned silver at the African Championships in Gabon and bronze at the African Games in Brazzaville.

He also reclaimed the title he won at the African Open tournament in Mauritius two years earlier, climbing to second position behind former World Championships silver medallist Abderrahmane Benamadi of Algeria in the continental rankings.

As the only SA judoka ranked among the top 50 in the world in any weight category heading into the 2016 campaign, Piontek was eager to get going in a lone Olympic charge.

“I am looking forward to competing (tomorrow) because my training has been going really well,” he said.