Rio 2016: Gemma Gibbons and Natalie Powell continue battle

By Nick HopeBBC Olympic sports reporter
Natalie Powell (left) and Gemma Gibbons (right)
Natalie Powell (left) defeated rival Gemma Gibbons in the 2014 Commonwealth Games final

Judo rivals Gemma Gibbons and Natalie Powell hope to take a step towards Olympic selection with success at the European Championships in Russia.

Only one of the -78kg judoka can be selected for Rio, with Wales' world number nine and Commonwealth champion Powell currently leading the race.

Gibbons, who is 13th, won silver at London 2012, but has struggled with injuries over the last two years.

They are part of a 13-strong GB squad for the Euros which begin on Thursday.

The Europeans in Kazan, are the last major championships before the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in August with up to 400 qualifying points on offer.

"It represents a chance for me to get closer to becoming Olympic champion," Gibbons told BBC Sport.

Powell added: "Everything I do everyday is geared towards winning gold in Rio and I haven't thought about anything else."

Gibbons (1,058) currently trails Powell (1,669) by 611 points, but there are potentially three further competitions after the Euros for either athlete to take an advantage before the close of the Olympic qualification period at the end of May.

Who is in winning form?

Gibbons made history by becoming the first British woman to win a medal at the prestigious Tokyo Grand Slam in December.

However, she then lost to Powell in the Paris Grand Slam bronze medal fight-off two months later and has not competed since after injuring her knee in the process.

"In a perfect world I would have liked to have a couple of tournaments before the Euros, but these things happen," said Gibbons.

"There have been occasions when I've been injured and people have said 'oh why is she bothering coming back, she's not going to win again' but every time I manage to prove them wrong and that's what I'm aiming to do now."

Powell was able to add to a first career Grand Slam medal in Paris with a Grand Prix bronze in Tbilisi, Georgia, a month later.

"The Commonwealths was the competition which really kick-started my improvement and made me believe I can achieve in this sport," she said.

"I feel my performances are just getting better and better heading towards the Olympics and I feel I'm peaking at the right time."

Does Powell v Gibbons rivalry help GB judo?

The women's -78kg division is the only category in which more than one leading British athlete is battling for Olympic selection, but Powell believes more domestic rivalries would boost international performances.

"Having to compete against someone from your own country means you can never take your foot off the gas," said the Commonwealth champion.

"It's really difficult because we can't both go [to Rio], but I see that extra pressure as a good thing and it definitely makes us stronger."

Powell has won their last two high-profile head-to-head fights, but Gibbons does not believe that will affect selection.

"It's really all about who gets the most points at the Europeans and qualifies highest for the Olympics," Olympic silver medallist Gibbons said.

"If we come up against each other then obviously one will go further than the other, but that's the key rather than who can beat who most often."

Who else is likely to qualify?

Sally Conway
Sally Conway is the highest ranked Briton at seventh in her -70kg division

The Olympic selection criteria see the world's top 14 women and top 22 men - with a limit of one athlete per nation - qualify for the Games.

Further berths are available at the end of the Olympic qualification period - at the end of May - based on continental rankings.

In addition to Powell and Gibbons, Britain currently have five further judoka who are inside the qualification criteria.

Sally Conway is the highest ranked at seventh in her -70kg division, with Alice Schlesinger (-63kg) 11th and Nekoda Davis (-57kg) 15th.

London Olympians Colin Oates (-66kg) and Ashley McKenzie (-60kg) are 10th and 21st in their respective divisions.

"There's a good mix of youth and experience in the squad," said coach Katie Howie.

"The Europeans are important and everyone is pretty upbeat as we head towards the end of what's been a tough two-year qualification process."

How GB pick between Gibbons and Powell

British Judo will select whichever athlete it feels has the best chance of winning an Olympic medal in Rio.

The first criteria for selection will be whether one of the judoka can attain a top-eight world ranking, as this would ensure they draw a lower-ranked athlete in the opening round of the Games.

In the unlikely situation that both were to attain a top-eight ranking, then performances against other top-ranked judoka athletes would be taken into consideration.

-60kg Ashley McKenzie-57kg Nekoda Davis
-66kg Colin Oates-63kg Alice Schlesinger, Amy Livesey
-73kg Danny Williams-70kg Sally Conway
-81kg Owen Livesey-78kg Natalie Powell, Gemma Gibbons
-90kg Frazer Chamberlain, Andy Burns+78kg Sarah Adlington
-100kg Ben Fletcher