TOKYO (AP) — Naohisa Takato won Japan’s first gold medal at its home Olympics, beating Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei in the men’s 60-kilogram judo final on Saturday night.
Kosovo’s Distria Krasniqi beat Japan’s Funa Tonaki in the women’s 48-kilogram final less than an hour before Takato made sure his team wouldn’t have a double heartbreak on the opening day of competition in its beloved homegrown martial art.
Takato won his final three bouts in sudden-death golden score, but he took the final a bit anticlimactically after Yang committed too many fouls.
The charismatic Takato’s success — and Tonaki’s heartbreaking, last-minute defeat — could provide a much-needed jolt of excitement for a nation still feeling profoundly ambivalent about these Olympics and discouraged by the scandals and coronavirus setbacks surrounding them.
The 28-year-old Takato atoned for his disappointing bronze-medal performance in Rio de Janeiro five years ago with a hair-raising run to the Tokyo final at the venerable Nippon Budokan arena, the site of judo’s introduction to the Olympics in 1964.
Takato won two of his final three bouts on extra-time fouls against his opponent, and he went seven minutes into golden score in a superb semifinal before finishing Kazakhstan’s Yeldos Smetov. Takato carried that momentum into the final against Yang and claimed his second Olympic medal.
Takato is a three-time world champion who desperately wanted to set the tone for Japan’s home Olympics with a gold medal on the opening day. Takato and Tonaki were under extraordinary scrutiny in Tokyo, where some Japanese media suggested the entire Olympic team’s performance could rise or fall depending on the first day’s judo results.
After the 4-foot-10 Tonaki earned a series of stirring wins against larger opponents, she fell agonizingly short of gold. Krasniqi won on a throw with 20 seconds left, scoring a waza-ari and claiming Kosovo’s second-ever Olympic medal, an achievement that moved her to tears moments later.
Takato attributed his struggles in Rio to his inability to handle the Olympics’ enormous pressure as his team’s first fighter due to competing in the sport’s lightest weight class. Takato said he couldn’t even remember the details of his trip to Brazil, so fried were his nerves.
Takato and Tonaki faced the added pressure of competing in the Budokan, Japan’s beloved martial arts shrine. Although no fans were in the arena, its reverential importance to martial arts contributes to the entire Japanese team’s determination to extend its impressive judo achievements.
Japan won 39 gold medals and 84 total medals in judo before these games, both tops in Olympic judo history and Japan’s Olympic history in any sport.
Despite its continuous judo excellence, Japan hadn’t won gold in either of the Olympics’ two lightest weight classes since Athens in 2004, when Tadahiro Nomura wrapped up his unmatched record run to three consecutive gold medals at 60 kilograms.
Takato and Tonaki got their Olympic places early last year, shortly before the pandemic forced the Olympic postponement. Both judokas have spoken publicly about their battles with nerves on their sport’s biggest stages.
Yet even with an extra year to stew on the gravity of their roles for their nation on the opening day of its home games, Tonaki and Takato both came through with inspiring efforts in a series of draining, high-level bouts.
Takato had predicted his win earlier this year, saying he couldn’t wait to stand on the top step of the podium as the Japanese national anthem played.
He had to work extraordinarily hard for it, but Takato got his golden moment.
Takato was forced into a grinding, tight quarterfinal bout with Georgia’s Lukhum Chkhvimiani, who won a world championship at the Budokan two years ago. The players went scoreless in regulation after Chkhvimiani nearly ended it with a mid-bout throw, and Takato barley avoided two major trouble spots in golden score.
Over 3 1/2 minutes in, Takato was nearly thrown again — and then the bout abruptly ended when a frustrated Ckhkvimiani was called for a foul, sending Takato into the semifinals.
Takato’s semifinal against Smetov was even more draining.
The fighters went through a tactical, tentative regulation into seven minutes of golden score, with Takato barely avoiding yet another match-ending throw in the opening minute. Takato simply wore down Smetov, who was visibly exhausted and got a significant cut above his left eye before Takato finally ended it with a waza-ari at 7:02.
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