With a burst of fist pumps, Naohisa Takato left the tatami on Saturday as the winner of Japan’s first gold medal – and, perhaps, the man who will help a skeptical country turn the corner on an Olympics few wanted at this time.
Inside the storied walls of the Nippon Budokan, an arena built for Tokyo’s first Olympics in 1964, Takato accomplished exactly what organizers had hoped when they scheduled a pair of gold-medal judo matches within 24 hours of the opening ceremony in a country that founded the sport and remains its dominant power.
The seats may have been bereft of fans. But Takato’s gold in the men’s under-60-kilogram competition – and, moments earlier, silver for Japan’s Funa Tonaki in the women’s under-48-kg – was the moment where a little-loved Olympics was meant to find the favour of its hosts. But the pair of Japanese medals Saturday made for the kind of winning tale that, if it continues, stands to reverse the narrative of a Games sullied by a pandemic, scandals and an unwelcoming public.
“We were planning to both win the gold medal,” Takato said, referring to himself and Tonaki. But “I’m very happy that I can inspire the national team of Japan.”
He spent the five years since winning bronze in Rio de Janeiro, he said, “mentally fixated on the winning of the gold.”
Judo is the only Olympic discipline in which Japan holds more medals than any other country, with 88 in total, one in five of the country’s overall count. Japan won eight gold medals in Athens in 2004. At the Tokyo Games, at a bare minimum, it wants to equal that total. Many hope for more.
“No doubt, we want a gold medal in all weight categories,” said Naoki Ogata, the technical operations manager with the International Judo Federation.
Tonaki’s silver made that impossible. Other spoilers may yet come, including from Canadian champion Jessica Klimkait.
Japan added two more judo gold medals Sunday, with siblings Uta Abe (women’s under-52-kg) and Hifumi Abe (men’s under-66-kg) both winning their finals. They became the first Japanese brother and sister to capture gold on the same day of Olympic competition.
Japan, judo and the Olympics have been deeply intertwined from the earliest days. Judo founder Kano Jigoro was Japan’s first member of the International Olympic Committee. Judo made its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 1964. And the Nippon Budokan arena that played host to judo – in 1964 and again this year, in renovated form – is such a hallowed venue for the sport that some considered it a desecration when the Beatles played a concert there in 1966.
It is “a sacred place for the judo community,” said Yoko Tanabe, a three-time Olympic medalist for Japan in judo who is now a professor at Nihon University. “It is with great emotion that I watch the Olympics staged in this building for the second time. I feel the weight of history.”
Nowhere is that weight more pronounced than in the 100-kilogram-plus match scheduled for a week from now – one freighted with a decades-old failure that has sat heavily inside the octagonal walls of the Budokan since Dutchman Anton Geesink won the marquee match in 1964. The victor of the open-weight category is seen as the sport’s true champion, and Geesink’s win helped to spread judo around the world.
But it also deprived Japan of a gold-medal sweep, and formed a particularly charged chapter in the country’s sporting history. After Japan’s Akio Kaminaga lost the final to Geesink, the Japanese team retreated to its locker room in tears. “You could hear people crying in the stunned crowd of the Budokan,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of 1964 – The Greatest Year in the History of Japan. The country’s head judo coach then had his head shaved in what was the mark of “ultimate humiliation in Japan at the time,” Peter Snijders, Geesink’s teammate, told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “He had imposed that punishment on himself.”
Judo not only originated in Japan, it embodies the country. “It incorporates Japanese culture and etiquette. The clothing is Japanese style, and the terms used in the competition are Japanese,” said Tanabe, the professor. But in 1964, “a big, blond foreigner had humiliated Japan in front of the entire world,” the writer Ian Buruma wrote in an essay included in his anthology The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West.
This year’s Olympics offer a similar storyline, and with it a chance for redemption.
The reigning heavyweight champion is Frenchman Teddy Riner, who took Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, relegating Japan’s Hisayoshi Harasawa to silver in Rio de Janeiro.
Both men are back this year in Tokyo.
But it’s clear the heavier burden rests on Harasawa’s shoulders.
“It is kind of a revenge match in judo history,” said Ogata, the technical director. “I personally want to see the Japanese judoka win at Nippon Budokan.”
With a report from Naoko Mikami
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