JAPAN DISAPPOINTING PERFORMANCE IN JUDO AT THE 2012 OLYMPICS

JAPAN DISAPPOINTING PERFORMANCE IN JUDO AT THE 2012 OLYMPICS

The Japanese judo team finished the 2012 Olympics with one gold medals, three silvers and three bronze medals, a showing that was considered a major disappointment. AP reported: “the nation that invented judo has been tossed onto its back at the London Olympics. Drawn from ancient samurai traditions, judo has traditionally been dominated by the Japanese, though its prevalence has slipped in recent years. After winning just one gold medal in the judo competition last week, some declared it the demise of Japanese judo.[Source: AP, August 4, 2012]

"The supremacy of Japanese judo has come to an end," said French judoka Lucie Decosse, a gold medallist and triple world champion. "Many other countries have suffered in the past because of Japanese supremacy," she said. "The fact that Japan is not doing very well, we have to take advantage of it." Japan was devastated after it won only four gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, half of what they took home from Athens. Heading into the Olympics with a largely new team, experts predicted they would win at least six to eight gold medals.

Sitting atop the judo medals table was Russia, with three golds. France and South Korea both won two golds, followed by one each for Japan and Cuba. Kozue Suzuki, a reporter at Japanese daily Asashi Shimbun, said Japanese back home were shocked and disappointed by the judo team's performance. "People in Japan say silver and bronze are not medals and that gold is the only medal," she said. "But unfortunately this time there are not very many at all."

Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Japan was unable to win any gold medals in men's judo at the London Olympics. Since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when judo was added to the Olympic events, and excluding the 1980 Moscow Olympics, in which Japan did not participate, this has never happened before. Results of women's judo contests were also lackluster, with Japan securing only three medals. The possibility of a gold-less Olympics was a fear before the Games started, as no Japanese athletes in the Olympic weight classes won in two straight world competitions--the 2007 and 2009 world championship games. [Source: Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2012]

AFP reported: “At the 20112 World Championships in Paris Japan dominated the lightweight divisions. In fact it was in those lighter divisions -- particularly the women's categories -- where they expected to dominate. At last year's Worlds they provided both finallists in the women's under-48kg and under-52kg divisions but at the Games they failed to win a medal in either. "It's very severe, we wanted two gold medals at least by now," said women's coach Isamu Sonoda, himself an Olympic champion in 1976 in Montreal. "In particular we thought we could get gold medals in the under-48kg and under-52kg categories but we didn't win any medals at all." That was particularly galling as double world under-48kg champion Haruna Asami and world under-52kg leader Yuka Nishida were left at home. [Source: AFP, August 2, 2012]

It's not as though Japan were not relying on talented fighters, though, as they brought world number one at under-48kg Tomoko Fukumi and world under-52kg champion Misato Nakamura. The biggest risk was perhaps Matsumoto as she only won bronze in Paris last year whereas Aiko Sato took gold. But Matsumoto is the only Japanese to have delivered gold in London. And she recognised after her victory the importance of her medal for the team's morale. "I was able to get gold on behalf of my colleagues Fukumi and Nakamura so I'm very happy," she said. "There was indeed pressure but I did what I wanted to do along the way and I think that helped me to get this medal."

Japan'a coaches have been coy about their expectations, barely speaking to the press, not wishing to pile the pressure on their fighters. Following her bronze in the under-63kg division, Yoshie Ueno revealed the coaches have not expressed their feelings to the fighters. [Ibid] "The number of medals we have are still in the lower range but the coaches have not said anything in particular about that, and we've still got tomorrow," she said. The situation for the men is more drastic with Hiroaki Hiraoka and Riki Nakaya winning silver in the under-60kg and under-73kg respectively and Misashi Ebinuma taking bronze at under-66kg. [Ibid] Founders Japan have not dropped off the summit of world judo but they have seen the competition eat into their dominance, particularly since the seven gold medals -- and five in the women's categories -- they won in Athens in 2004. [Ibid]

Explanations for Japan’s Disappointing Performance in Judo at the 2012 Olympics

Japanese judo players were at a loss to explain their abysmal performance. "We are the ones who give the impression that Japanese judo has declined," said Masashi Nishiyama, a bronze medallist. "This is the reality and I am very disappointed about that." Mika Sugimoto, who won Japan's last judo medal---a silver in the women's heavyweight division---was also baffled by their poor performance. "I am quite confident we have practiced more than other countries," she said. "I really don't know why we couldn't get more medals," she added, saying it was "regrettable" she had to settle for silver. [Source: AP, August 4, 2012]

Judo's governing body even changed the rules after Beijing to rule out grappling techniques often used by Europeans and North Americans. The changes forced competitors to use more classic Japanese judo, such as throws from an upright position rather than the groundwork that many eastern Europeans excel at. "Theoretically, the rule changes favour the Japanese," said Ray Stevens, a British silver medallist from the Barcelona Olympics. "But very good players will always adapt so there's no guarantee for the Japanese," he said. There wasn't. Only Kaori Matsumoto was able to win a gold in the women's 57-kilogram division, with the Japanese men completely shut out. It was the first time since judo was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1964 that the Japanese men have not won gold. [Ibid]

Men's coach Shinichi Shinohara said the team had struggled to find athletes who could replace Japan's previous judo stars. "I am very sorry," he said of the team's failure. U.S. judo coach Jimmy Pedro said the Japanese team, comprised mostly of Olympic novices, had simply overtrained in the lead-up to the games. "They've competed at too many competitions and now they're flat," he said. [Ibid]

But not everyone was convinced it was all over for Japan. American gold medallist Kayla Harrison said the pressure of the Olympics might have gotten to the Japanese judo fighters. "They are still fierce competitors," she said. "But a lot of them were the number one and number two in their category and came into this with a huge target on their back," she said. "Sometimes having that doesn't work in your favour."

Judo's biggest star---newly crowned Olympic champion Teddy Riner---has no doubt Japan will redouble its judo efforts. The five-time world champion said he didn't have any advice for the Japanese but wasn't sure they needed it. "This week, they lost it," Riner said. "But they have super judoka and I am sure we will see the Japanese be a threat at future competitions."

World Gets Better in Judo

Japan has a growing array of rivals from across the globe, their dominance faces its stiffest challenge yet. "Japan has definitely great potential to get a lot of gold, specifically in the lightweight categories," Nicolas Messner from the International Judo Federation, the sport's governing body, told Reuters. "But the level of the competition is really high and in many categories, there is not one favourite, but two, three, four." [Source: Michael Holden, Reuters, July 16, 2012]

Michael Holden of Reuters wrote: Almost 400 contenders from 134 countries, up from 96 in 2008, will battle it out in the seven weight categories for men and women during seven days of competition at London's ExCel exhibition centre. South Korea will again be among the medals along with France, which won two silver and two bronze medals in Beijing and have Lucie Decosse, runner up four years ago, hot favourite in the women's -70 kg class. They also boast the standout judoka in Riner, the 6ft 8ins (2.04m) giant who already has five individual world titles to his name at the age of just 23. He is firm favourite to convert the bronze he won at Beijing into a gold this time in the heavyweight (+100 kg) section. "Teddy Riner is already a legend. If he wins the title in London, he will become the best active judoka," said Messner. [Ibid]

Many medal contenders come from more unheralded sporting nations such as Egypt, Kazakhstan and Georgia, while Uzbekistan's Rishod Sobirov is a massive favourite in the men's -60 kg class. Mongolia's Tuvshinbayar Naidan, who won his country's first Olympic gold in Beijing, will attempt to defend his title in the men's -100kg class, while his compatriot Tsagaanbaatar Khashbaatar will fancy his chances in the -66 kg division. Khashbaatar earned Mongolia's first Olympic medal at the Beijing Games

“There's not a weak country in judo anymore,'' U.S. Olympic coach Jimmy Pedro told AP. “The Olympics for some countries like Egypt and Iran represents what they are all about. They want to exceed at the strong, manly sports to send a message to the rest of the world.'' [Source: AP, June 25, 2012]

Is Japanese-Style Judo Losing Out to More Brawny Foreign-Style Judo?

What has happened? Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: In the London Games, there was a strong impression that Japanese athletes were overcome by the physical power of their foreign rivals. Japanese judo athletes aim for "beautiful judo" in which athletes grapple in proper manners and aim for "ippon" victories. During training camps, Japanese judo coaches rarely teach athletes irregular judo strategies, such as trying to make the opponent receive a shido warning or grabbing the back of an opponent. To gain an advantage in grappling, judo athletes are required to firstly win in competing to grab the opponent's body or judo uniforms--known as "kumite." [Source: Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2012]

However, judoka of other countries with stronger muscle power than their Japanese rivals dominated in kumite competition. A source in the Japanese judo team said: "Foreign judo athletes have power beyond techniques and theories. Japanese athletes made insufficient efforts to take the initiative in kumite and lacked originality." Scenes in which Takamasa Anai and Daiki Kamikawa, both heavyweights, were easily flipped over and became stifled in osaekomi holds were telling. [Ibid]

Satoshi Ishii, who won gold in the over-100-kilogram class in the Beijing Games, did not stick to winning with ippon, and was criticized for aiming at yuko and getting opponents to receive shido warnings.Ishii was criticized for placing too much emphasis on winning points, but he rejected such opinions, saying, "Unless I win, everything will be meaningless." Ishii then emphasized that it was more important to study rivals and be well versed in tactics than to pursue the ideal Japanese style. [Ibid]

Did Judo Rule Changes Work Against Japan?

After the Beijing Olympics, AP reported, officials changed the rules to preserve the sport's Japanese origins after they saw wrestling techniques creeping into judo. Direct attacks on the leg that don't involve any other techniques in combination are forbidden. Now competitors rely more on traditional Japanese judo, which focuses on throws from an upright position. The change also increased the number of fights which end in ippon, judo's equivalent of a knockout. Ippons are usually won when a judoka throws his or her rival flat on their back with force and control. It also has made judo more interesting and easier to follow for spectators. “We know people complain that judo is complicated to understand,'' Messner said. “But even if you don't understand the rules, it's clear when someone gets thrown to the ground who has won the match.'' [Source: AP, June 25, 2012]

Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: After the Beijing Games, the International Judo Federation revised rules to prohibit tackling attacks, by such means as grabbing an opponent's legs first. Judo experts predicted that the rule change would be advantageous for Japanese judo athletes, who favor grappling. However, at the London Games, Japanese athletes were overwhelmed by foreign rivals' physical power and irregular style.[Source: Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2012]

Also, different from world championship events in which two competitors from one country can participate in the same weight category, in the Olympics, there can only be one judo Olympian to represent Japan in each weight category. Some judo experts said that the Japanese judo athletes were mentally weak and were thus defeated by the psychological pressure. [Ibid]

Hirotaka Okada, who won a bronze medal in the Barcelona Games and is now the chief instructor of the University of Tsukuba, said: "As the athletes have participated in many competitions, there were not enough opportunities to prepare them, and they were unable to reach their best possible condition." One member of the Japanese judo team said, "Though I wanted to adjust my condition with the Olympics approaching, I was suddenly told to join training camp." Currently, Japanese judo athletes have to tour overseas and as a result do not have enough time to study rivals or adjust their conditions. [Ibid]

Did the New Ranking System Work Against Japan?

Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Some judo experts attributed the situation to effects of a point-ranking system introduced after the Beijing Games.In the London Games, not only Japan's but also many other countries' top-seeded judo athletes who were in top positions in the point ranking, were unable to win gold medals in many weight categories.The point rankings, which should have been indicators of their strength, were not reflected in the Olympic results. This caused some judo experts to say, "Higher ranked judoka were stripped by rivals. [Source: Kuniyuki Kamimura and Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2012]

Since rivals analyzed video clips and other data of the higher-ranked judoka, the higher their rankings were, the more of their weak points became known to rivals, the experts said. Masashi Ebinuma, who was ranked fourth among competitors in the men's 66-kilogram category, was defeated by a 20-year-old Georgian rival who was ranked 32nd in the semifinal. In the women's 52-kilogram category, a North Korean judoka who ranked 25th won the gold, even though she had participated in only a small number of international competitions and gained a spot in the London Games to fulfill a quota. [Ibid]

The IJF had allocated quotas for eligible participants of each country based on the countries' records in world championships and other international judo competitions. But the IJF changed the system such that individual judoka are given points based on their own records in international events. [Ibid]

In the London Games, in principle, men ranked 22nd or higher and women ranked 14th or higher were invited to the Olympics, and as a result, many countries sent judoka to more international events than before. However, in many cases for other countries' judoka, a single Olympic candidate participated in competitions held in different countries. This meant they did not need to participate in events with an eye on their points in the ranking system. But in Japan, as insurance against judoka failing to gain Olympic berths due to loss or injury, two or more top-class judoka have had to participate in many competitions around the year to maintain their high positions in the rankings. [Ibid]

After the 2012 London Olympics International Judo Federation Bans Leg Grabs

In December 2012, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The International Judo Federation, which has already outlawed wrestling-like tackles, plans to adopt a new rule that expands prohibiting the grabbing of an opponent's leg in any standing situation. In addition, the IJF will adopt a sudden-death system to decide tied matches that will replace the referees' decision. There will be no time limit in the extra period, and a caution will result in immediate defeat. [Ibid]

The prohibition on direct tackles was adopted in 2010, but IJF officials said there had been controversy over whether the offender had grabbed a leg as an attacking move or as a counter technique. The new rule states that the use of a hand or arm on any part of the opponent's body below the belt, whether during a series of maneuvers or in defense, will be considered a foul, resulting in an automatic loss. [Ibid]

Japan, the birthplace of the sport, has long lobbied for a return to the traditional style, where big throws are the goal as opposed to building up points through smaller moves. But there is concern that the new rule might be taking things too far, as it will in theory eliminate such spectacular throws as the fireman's carry and the "sukuinage," a common counter technique in which the opponent's leg is scooped from behind. "Dynamic countermoves will disappear," said one Japanese official. "It's important to find flaws [in the rule] during the test period.” [Ibid]

'Wild Girl' Matsumoto Wins Japan’s Only Judo Gold in London in 2012

Kaori Matsumoto won the gold medal in the women's 57-kilogram division in judo, bringing Japan its first gold at the London Olympic Games and giving the judo squad a much-needed boost. Matsumoto defeated Corina Caprioriu in the final, as the Romanian was disqualified during overtime for an illegal leg trip from behind. Matsumoto's triumph filled a big void left over the past few days as the Japanese women came up short in the other divisions. "I couldn't have won this medal by myself. The support I received gave me strength," Matsumoto, 24, said. [Source: Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 1, 2012]

Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: With her excellent athletic ability and relentless desire to win, Matsumoto earned the moniker of "wild girl." She seemed unfazed by the pressure to perform at her first Olympics. Asked about how she felt to be the first Japanese to strike gold in London, she said, "I like being No. 1."

At the medal award ceremony, Keiichi Kojima wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The "wild girl" renowned for her relentless will to win could not stop her tears from flowing. As judoka Kaori Matsumoto realized she had won the gold medal in the women's 57-kilogram division, the steely expression that had seemed permanently etched on her face evaporated, and she wiped her eyes on her judo jacket sleeve. After stepping down from the tatami mat, she rushed to Ryuji Sonoda, the Japan team's head coach, as tears ran down her cheeks. Matsumoto had just won Japan's first gold medal at the London Olympic Games--and it had been a long road getting to this point for the 24-year-old with the eye of a tiger. "I've been training really hard with [Japan's] 48-kg and 52-kg judoka. This isn't a gold medal for me alone," she said later. [Source: Keiichi Kojima, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 1, 2012]

Matsumoto was given a special award at the Japan Grand Prix at the 62nd Japan Sports Awards. Established by The Yomiuri Shimbun, the awards are given every year to the most prominent athletes and teams in the world of sports. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 15, 2012]

Kaori Matsumoto’s Life

She was a mischievous child with a highly competitive streak. She loved racing with friends and competing against anyone faster than her would fuel her fire. When riding her bicycle, she would frantically pedal to go faster than passing vehicles. When she lost, she felt genuinely frustrated. More than anything, she hates losing. As a child, Matsumoto once came third in a national championship for wrestling, a sport she learned at a judo training hall. She was driven by her refusal to lose to anyone "at anything." Since she was a primary school pupil, she has been blessed with a fighting spirit that almost leaves her like a predator in pursuit of her prey. [Ibid]

After becoming an athlete representing Japan, she even became stricter with herself. At the end of every practice, she asked herself, "Today, could I have defeated the me of yesterday?" If she was not completely convinced, she trained some more. "I can never accept an attitude like, 'I'm tired today, so I'm done.' It means I've given in to myself," Matsumoto said. The more grueling the training, the tougher she became on herself. She has suffered defeats and injuries. But she believes these experiences have made her stronger. "They helped me learn about myself and my opponents," she said. Her ability to unleash her fighting spirit on the mat while retaining her composure has helped her rise to clearly be the No. 1-ranked judoka in her division. Previously, the best result for Japanese women in the 57-kg class was a bronze medal. Matsumoto has reached the summit that eluded her forerunners, and gave a performance that cheered Japanese judo amid a spate of disappointing results. [Ibid]

Keiichi Kojima wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “When Matsumoto was a third-year student at a Kanazawa high school, she was invited by Akira Inada, then head judo coach at Teikyo University, to join the team. He sensed something special about her. "Your eyes tell me you can win the world title," Inada told her. "You have such a strong desire to beat your opponent, whatever it takes." Inada has coached Ryoko Tani, who won gold at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and is now a House of Councillors member. [Source: Keiichi Kojima, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 1, 2012]

After entering Teikyo University, Matsumoto unleashed this strong desire whenever she took to the mat. She soon earned the moniker "wild girl." Her full-blooded collisions with opponents sometimes resulted in injury. She broke her nose when she was a freshman and her right elbow as a sophomore. At the world championships in her senior year, Matsumoto fractured a bone in her right hand but still fought two matches. However, she finished fifth, and shed tears due to the pain and disappointment. [Ibid]

"You get injured because you're a slacker in your private life. You should throw everything into judo," Sonoda told her. This advice flicked a switch inside Matsumoto. She had to make some major changes to her lifestyle in Tokyo. She was playing video games until late at night and napping during classes at university. Her diet was a far cry from what an elite athlete should be eating: breakfast was usually deep-fried chicken, lunch was a carbonated drink and snacks, and dinner often consisted of fried food and meat. She would often munch on more snacks before going to bed. [Ibid]

Matsumoto's father, Kenji, is a qualified chef. She phoned and asked him how to cook proper meals. He soon sent a notebook filled with handwritten menus tailored to her tastes. Her parents also started to regularly send her packages of frozen food mainly made by her father, such as fried rice, sauteed mix vegetables and stewed daikon. The taste of home cooking fueled the fire inside Matsumoto and made her appreciate her parents even more. Her daily routine became healthier and more regular, and her metabolism improved. She has not suffered any fractures since then. [Ibid]

When Matsumoto was a middle school student, she promised her mother, Emiko, "I'll take you to the Olympics one day." It was just a casual conversation, but it later motivated her to stay dedicated to judo. Matsumoto's parents were in the stands watching as she won her gold medal. Kenji, 59, stood up and raised his arms in triumph, while Emiko buried her face in a Hinomaru national flag bearing many messages of encouragement for Matsumoto, to hide her tears of joy. "This is the best thing a child could do for her parents," Kenji said. "I'm proud of my daughter for keeping her promise," said Emiko, 52. [Ibid]

Silver Medals for Japanese Judoka at the 2012 Olympics in London

Riki Nakaya came close to winning a a gold medal in the men’s judo in the 73-kg division but settled for a silver. "I want to win at the Olympics to prove Japan is the world's strongest in the men's 73-kilogram division," the 23-year-old world champion said beforehand. However, he was defeated by Mansur Isaev of Russia in the gold-medal match. "As an athlete representing Japan, I felt that I really needed to win a gold medal. But this is how things turned out, and I learned I'm still far from being sharp enough," Nakaya said after the final.[Source: Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 1, 2012]

Hiroaki Hiraoka won silver in the men's 60-kg division, losing to Russia's Arsen Galstyan in the final. Hiroyuki Shimoyama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “For Hiroaki Hiraoka, a silver medal was of little consequence. Only a gold medal would fully heal the wound that was opened four years ago. "I've trained for four years thinking of nothing but winning the gold medal at the Olympics...I'm disappointed," Hiraoka said after losing in the final of the men's 60-kilogram class at the London Olympics. [Source: Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 30, 2012]

Russia's Arsen Galstyan ended Hiraoka's dream of a gold medal just 41 seconds into the final, when he countered the Japanese's throw attempt by flinging him to the mat for an ippon victory. Galstyan became the first Russian gold medalist in judo since the breakup of the Soviet Union. For Hiraoka, it was another silver medal for his collection--he has two from the world championships, along with a bronze. [Ibid]

"In the Olympics, one letup can mean the difference between victory and defeat," Japan national team coach Shinichi Shinohara said. "I wish he had been more careful. I don't know why [Hiraoka] can't get that one last victory." Hiraoka was appearing in his second straight Olympics--and while he fell short of his ultimate goal, he certainly lasted a lot longer this time. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 27-year-old Hiraoka suffered a stunning first-round loss to unheralded American Taraje Williams-Murray. [Ibid]

Adding to the devastation was the fact that there had been mixed reactions when Hiraoka was chosen for the spot on the Japan squad in the men's lightest weight class ahead of three-time Olympic champion Tadahiro Nomura. Hiraoka took the loss and the resulting criticism hard, even contemplating retirement. But one e-mail he received encouraged him to forge ahead. "The people who say we should have sent Nomura only say so because they don't know how hard you worked," the message read. "Don't worry about it. And don't quit."

Inspired by those words, Hiraoka stuck with the sport with renewed vigor to make up for his Beijing disaster. He added more weight training to increase his strength and swore off fried foods and carbonated drinks.Hiraoka looked in good form from the beginning at London's ExCeL arena, sweeping to decisive victories in his first two matches. The Hiroshima native, however, had to dodge a bullet in the quarterfinals. Trailing France's Sofiane Milous, Hiraoka scored a yuko point with seven seconds left to send the match into overtime. After a scoreless three minutes, Hiraoka was awarded the judges' decision. In the semifinals, Hiraoka scored a waza-ari before putting away Italy's Elio Verde with a back trip. [Ibid]

The final was a rematch of the semifinal at the IJF World Masters tournament in January in Baku, in which Galstyan beat Hiraoka en route to the gold medal. In London, Galstyan launched a hip throw attempt that Hiraoka fought off, then immediately maneuvered behind the Russian in preparation for a throw of his own. But Galstyan planted his right foot, latched onto Hiraoka's left arm around his waist and twisted to the right, sending the Japanese flat onto his back onto the mat. [Ibid]

In the women's judo over-78-kilogram division, Mika Sugimoto, 27, came painfully close to gold. "I feel devastated," Sugimoto said after the final, which she lost to Cuba's Idalys Ortiz. "I was nervous [about participating in my first Olympics], but having received so much support, I wanted people to see my judo," she added. As the leading Japanese judoka in her category, Sugimoto has always been determined to reach the top. In her second-round and quarterfinal matches, she secured ippon victories within a minute. In the final, however, she tried her specialty--an uchimata inner-thigh throw--but was not aggressive enough to take down 2008 bronze medalist Ortiz. Sugimoto lost the bout on a unanimous judges' decision in extra time.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 5, 2012]

Masaru Tanabe, who serves as coach for the Japanese team in the heavyweight classes for the Olympics, speaks highly of her judo skills. "Sugimoto knows exactly how to throw her opponent. That's not something athletes can be taught to do," said Tanabe. As Tanabe points out, Sugimoto has the ability to perform a sharp uchimata and haraigoshi sweeping hip throw. Since winning titles in the over-78-kilogram division and the open-weight category in the 2010 World Judo Championships, her fighting style has been dissected by competitors overseas. [Ibid]

However, in her category, the 165-centimeter-tall Sugimoto is considered to have a small build. Blocked by the long arms of her foreign contenders, she was unable to employ throwing techniques, limiting her arsenal to a few options. As a result, she has been losing more matches on penalties recently. In the London semifinal, Ortiz defeated Beijing gold medalist Tong Wen of China, who Sugimoto has never defeated. [Ibid]

Judo Bronze Medals for Japan and a Major Upset at the 2012 Olympics in London

Yoshie Ueno won a bronze medal in the third-place playoff in the women's judo 63-kilogram division at the London Olympics, adding another medal to her family's collection Ueno beat Munkhzaya Tsedevsuren of Mongolia by yuko. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Ueno, 29, comes from a successful judo family--her sister, Masae, won gold at the Athens and Beijing Olympics--and has been a presence on the domestic scene since she won the 63-kg category title at the age of 18. She had dreamed for years of competing at the Olympics; London was the stage where her dream came true. Ueno is known for steadily chalking up points during bouts, rather than chasing ippon wins with the eye-catching throws employed by her rival, Ayumi Tanimoto--a two-time gold medalist who competed with Ueno for a ticket to the Olympics until the Beijing Games. [Source: Hiroyuki Shimoyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 2, 2012]

Masashi Ebinuma won the bronze medal in the men's judo 66-kilogram class in his first Olympic Games, after throwing Pawel Zagrodnik of Poland for an ippon victory in overtime. However, Ebinuma won the medal only after a quarterfinal match decision was overturned in his favor. Ebinuma won his first match in the elimination round of 32 by ippon, and his second match by waza-ari in extra time. In the quarterfinal against Cho Jun Ho of South Korea, Cho was originally declared the winner of the match, with the referee and two judges raising his flags to indicate his win after extra time. But the decision was immediately reversed, clearing the way for Ebinuma to advance to the semifinal. After Ebinuma lost his semifinal match to Lasha Shavdatuashvili of Georgia by ippon after a sumigaeshi throw, he pulled off an ippon victory with an ogoshi hip throw in the bronze medal match. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 31, 2012]

Tomoko Fukumi, who was considered the gold-medal favorite in the women's 48-kilogram judo class, missed the medal podium after being defeated in the semifinals and subsequent third-place playoffs. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “For as long as it took for her to finally get to the Olympics, Tomoko Fukumi wanted the gold medal not for herself, but so she could put it around her mother's neck. Without her mother's support during a turbulant career, Fukumi would never had made it to the London Olympics-- which she would now be leaving empty-handed. "I gave it my best shot," the 27-year-old Fukumi said, choking back tears in an interview after she lost in the bronze-medal match of the women's 48-kilogram class. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 30, 2012]

Fukumi, who had had to take a back seat to judo legend Ryoko Tani through much of her career, came to London as the favorite, but lost in the semifinal round to Romania's Alina Dumitru before falling to Eva Csernoviczki of Hungary in the third-place playoff. Brazil's Sarah Menezes defeated Dumitru, the 2008 Beijing Olympic champion, in the final for the gold medal. [Ibid]

The seeds for Fukumi's development into a world-class competitor were planted at age 3, when her father, Shigeru, a bank official, died in a traffic accident. On the night of the wake, her mother, Sanae, told her: "Your father will always be watching you from the sky. You'll do your best without crying." When Fukumi started judo at age 7, Sanae would always return home from work to take her to practice. Fukumi, a hard worker of few words, made a name for herself at 16, when she defeated the great Tani (then known by her maiden name Tamura), who had won her first Olympic gold in Sydney. [Ibid]

Although Fukumi beat Tani again, Tani was selected over her for both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tani retired after Beijing, and Fukumi went on to win the 2009 world title. But then a new rival emerged in Haruna Asami, who beat her in the final at the world championships in both 2010 and 2011. Fukumi's dream of going to the London Olympics was fading, and she considered retiring after one of the domestic qualifying tournaments, win or lose. Her mother responded by saying, "You did great. I think it was enough." Those words soothed Fukumi and allowed her to realize she could continue in the sport without any pressure. It was just what she needed and, with a new found relaxed attitude, resulted in earning the Japan berth in May. Sanae, who watched from the stands in London, said tearfully, "I think she did all she could."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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