Judo casts a spell at Rio 2016

Serving up historic firsts for Kosovo and the Czech Republic, an emotional win for Brazil, Japan’s return to the limelight and a second gold for a French legend, the Rio 2016 judo competition had it all.

12 min
Judo casts a spell at Rio 2016
(Picture by 2016 Getty Images)

Held at Arena Carioca 2 and featuring 14 events in all (seven each for both men and women), the Rio 2016 judo competition began the day after the Opening Ceremony with the women’s -48kg and men’s -60kg divisions. Argentina’s first ever judo medallist, courtesy of the bronze she won at Beijing 2008, reigning world champion Paula Pareto finally got her hands on Olympic gold. To the delight of her compatriots in the crowd, the 30-year-old Pareto scored a waza-ari in the -48kg final against Jeong Bokyeong of the Republic of Korea and stayed ahead to take the title.

“I’ve dreamed a lot about this and I’m very happy because of all the people cheering,” said the Argentinian. “I started slowly but I improved as I went on and I’m very happy to beat a tough contender. I have no plans for now. I just want to get away from judo for the time being.” The two bronze medals went to Japan’s Ami Kondo and Kazakhstan’s Otgontsetseg Galbadrakh, while defending champion Sara Menezes of Brazil went out in the quarter-finals to Cuba’s Dayaris Mestre Alvarez.

Russia’s Beslan Mudranov succeeded compatriot Arsen Galstyan as the men’s -60kg champion, beating Yeldos Smetov of Kazakhstan to land his country’s first gold of Rio 2016. A three-time European champion, Mudranov bided his time against the 2015 world champion, winning with a waza-ari golden score. Taking the bronzes were Naohisa Takato of Japan and Diyorbek Urozboev of Uzbekistan.

Kelmendi wins Kosovo’s maiden title, Basile puts on a show

Majlinda Kelmendi took the honours in the women’s -52kg competition to give Kosovo, making its Games debut, a first Olympic gold. A very strong favourite to win the division, Kelmendi showed why she is a two-time world champion, getting the better of the 21-year-old Italian Odette Giuffrida with a yuko in the final. “I’m so happy,” said Kelmendi, reacting to her landmark achievement. “To be honest, I came here for the gold medal, but it’s crazy. I’m so happy for me, for my coach, for all my country. This is the first time that Kosovo is part of the Olympics, and for the first time, I think gold is huge.” Sharing the bronze were Japan’s Misato Nakamura and Russia’s Natalia Kuziutina.

Kelmendi was presented with her medal by IOC President Thomas Bach, who had come to watch the final. Speaking afterwards, she said: “Some things only happen once in life and that’s the case today. Mr Bach has always been a big supporter of Kosovo and Kosovan sport. When he gave me the medal, he said to me: ‘If you remember, we had an agreement. I said I expected you to win the gold and you went and did it’. That made me cry.”

In the men’s -66kg class, Italy’s Fabio Basile snatched an unexpected gold by defeating reigning world champion An Baul of the Republic of Korea in the gold medal match. Appearing in his first major final, the 21-year-old Italian, who won bronze at the 2016 European Championships, showed no signs of nerves and claimed spoils title by tossing his opponent with a spectacular ippon, his fourth of a superb five-bout campaign. Completing the podium were Rishod Sobirov of Uzbekistan and Japan’s Masashi Ebinuma.

Silva opens Brazil’s account, Ono restores Japanese honour

Born and brought up in Cidade de Deus, the well-known Rio favela, Rafaela Silva had the home fans cheering when she won Brazil’s first gold of the 2016 Games in the women’s -57kg category. “For someone like me, who comes from the favelas and took up judo at the age of five for a laugh, to go on and become Olympic champion is just amazing,” said Silva. “If the children of Brazil have a dream, they have to believe they can make it come true. I dedicate this medal to the Brazilian people.”

The 24-year-old Silva secured gold with an impressive win over Mongolia’s Sumiya Dorjsuren, the Brazilian scoring waza-ari one minute in against the world number one and maintaining her advantage as the home crowd cheered her on. In scooping Olympic gold in her home city, Silva added a second major title to the world crown she won in Rio in 2013 and also atoned for her disqualification at London 2012. “The supporters really gave me momentum and built up the pressure on my opponents,” said the pugnacious judoka. “The stadium was shaking and everybody was screaming and cheering me all the way through.”

Kaori Matsumoto of Japan, the defending Olympic and reigning world champion, had to settle for bronze, along with Portugal’s Telma Monteiro.

Shohei Ono won the men’s -73kg crown to go some way to erasing memories of a forgettable London 2012 for Japan’s male judokas, where they failed to win a single gold medal. The 24-year-old reigning two-time world champion showed he was equal to the pressure of being the favourite for gold and claimed it by throwing Azerbaijan’s Rustam Orujov to the mat with a perfect ippon. Georgia’s Lasha Shavdatuashvili and Belgium’s Dirk van Tichelt collected the bronze medals.

“I was under a lot of pressure, but I did it,” said the new Olympic champion. “I think the Japan team is very strong, and I’m proud of that. In the final I just tried to stay cool and show my respect to my opponent.”

Trstenjak and Khalmurzaev say it with ippons

Reigning world champion Tina Trstenjak of Slovenia came out on top in the women’s -63kg, defeating Clarisse Agbegnenou of France by ippon less than two minutes into the final. The bronze medals went to Yerden Gerbi of Israel and the Netherlands’ Anicka van Emden.

“Fantastic! Amazing! Amazing! I can’t describe it,” said Trstenjak, who scored also ippon wins over China’s Yang Junxia in the quarter-finals and Brazil’s Maria Silva in the semi. “I didn’t make the best of starts, but things just got better and better, and it went perfectly in the last fight.” The 2014 world champion, Abegnenou could not hide her sadness at failing to come away with gold: “I am disappointed, very disappointed with myself, but I’ve still come away with silver. I tried to get her down, to find a chink in her armour, but I was in too much of a rush. I’m going to stop talking about judo for a while.”

In the men’s -81kg, the gold went Russia’s Khasan Khalmurzaev, who beat the USA’s Travis Stevens by ippon in the final. Sergiu Toma of the United Arab Emirates and Japan’s Takanori Nagase won the bronze medals.

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

The reigning European champion, the 22-year-old Khalmurzaev countered a move by his American opponent, eight years his senior, and threw him to the mat with a superb uchi-mata after two minutes and 42 seconds to secure a classy win. “I know this opponent and I know he is strong, so I did all I could do to win this gold medal,” said the Russian, who enjoyed a narrow golden-score win over Toma in the semi-finals. “I can’t believe it. I am so happy for my people.”

Tachimoto and Baker score Japanese double

Day five of the competition proved to be a memorable one for Japan, as Haruka Tachimoto took the women’s -70kg gold and Mashu Baker did likewise in the men’s -90kg. “The Japanese just want gold, and we have to be proud and strong to go and get it,” said the 26-year-old Tachimoto, who, along with Baker (21) and men’s -73kg champion Ono (24), is spearheading a new generation of Japanese judokas.

Tachimoto beat three-time world champion Yuri Alvear of Colombia in the final, scoring ippon after two minutes and 19 seconds. Great Britain’s Sally Conway defeated reigning world champion Gévrise Emane of France in the last 16 en route to winning bronze, which she shared with Germany’s Laura Vargas Koch.

To win his gold, Baker had to stand strong to get the better of the unpredictable Georgian Varlam Liparteliani, using nimble footwork to avoid his opponent’s dangerous hip throws, the Japanese tilted an evenly matched contest in his favour when he scored a yuko halfway through and maintained his advantage thereafter. Gwak Donghan of the Republic of Korea and China’s Cheng Xunzhao took the bronze medals.

“The best thing to win is the ippon win. Knowing the big difference between gold and silver, perhaps I fought defensively. I wanted to win by ippon, but it didn’t work,” said Baker, born in Tokyo to an American father and a Japanese mother, who was in the stands to see him win gold. “I’ve been dreaming of this since I was six and I’m absolutely thrilled.”

Harrison and Krpalek enter judo annals

The London 2012 gold medallist, Kayla Harrison of the USA became the first judoka to win two Olympic gold medals in the women’s -78kg category, defeating France’s Audrey Tcheuméo in the final. The American led by penalties with seconds to go when she managed to force Tcheuméo to submit on a hold for the match-ending ippon. Full of energy and conviction throughout the competition, Harrison received a major boost in her bid for gold when her biggest rival, Mayra Aguiar of Brazil, lost in the semi-final to the Frenchwoman, with Aguiar sharing the bronze with Slovenia’s Anamari Velensek.

“It’s my legacy. I can retire as a two-time Olympic champion and one of the greatest athletes in the sport,” said the world number one, the winner of the USA’s first judo gold four years previously. “What you haven’t seen today is all the work I’ve put in over the last four years to get here. This title means so much. It’s twice as good.”

A -100kg world champion in 2014, Lukas Krpalek prevailed in the division again to secure the Czech Republic’s first ever Olympic judo medal. After beating Azerbaijan’s Elmar Gasimov by ippon with just 26 seconds left on the clock, an ecstatic Krpalek said: “It’s amazing! I’m the first Czech judoka to win an Olympic medal in judo, and to cap it all off it’s the best medal you can get. This is a huge thing for our country and our sport. It’s such an important win.”

The two finalists enjoyed a sporting embrace at the end of their bout, prompting the new champion to comment: “We’ve known each other since we were juniors, and we’re good friends. We are rivals on the mat, but in real life we get along well.” France’s Cyrille Maret celebrated his 29th birthday in style by winning bronze, along with Japan’s Ryunosuke Haga.

Heavyweight glory for French pair  

The final day of the judo competition saw France’s Teddy Riner go down in the sport’s history by winning his second heavyweight title, while his compatriot Emilie Andéol climbed to the top of the podium in the women’s +78kg division.

Eight times a world +100kg champion and still only 27, Riner added even more lustre to his unrivalled record by beating Japan’s Hisayoshi Harasawa on penalties. Unbeaten since 2010, the French giant, who stands 2.03m tall and weighs in at 137kg, was in typically superlative form as he extended his incredible winning streak to 98 matches. France’s flagbearer in Rio, Riner is the third judo heavyweight in history to win two Olympic titles, after fellow countryman David Douillet (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000) and Japan’s Hitoshi Saito (Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988).

As has so often been the case since he secured his first world crown in 2007, Riner was in a class of his own in Rio. The Guadeloupean-born judoka suffered barely a hitch on his way to the final, where he proved too strong for Harasawa, who had earlier made clear his intention to end Riner’s reign. The winner of a bronze at Beijing 2008, the Frenchman is now one of a very select band of athletes to have won three medals in judo and will no doubt be looking to break new ground by securing an unprecedented third heavyweight gold in Tokyo in four years time.

After suffering a series of injuries and some uncertain times in the last four years, he was only too pleased to make off with a second Olympic gold: “I enjoyed it because my hard work paid off. I’ve had a difficult Olympiad with operations and more than a few doubts on my mind, but I’m happy I got the job done.” Brazil’s Rafael Silva and Israel’s Or Sasson shared the bronze.

In the women’s +78kg competition, the 28-year-old Olympic debutant Andéol came out of nowhere to land the title, overcoming defending champion Idalys Ortiz of Cuba in a hard-fought final courtesy of an ippon after three minutes of extra-time.

Scarcely able to believe what she had achieved, an emotional Andéol said: “At the start of the day I’d never have thought I’d end up being the Olympic champion. Winning a medal, yes, but not the gold. And there you go: I went and did it.” A two-time European champion and 2014 world bronze medallist, Andéol is the first French judoka to take gold in the heaviest women’s category. She won it the hard way too, with three of her four fights going to extra-time. Japan’s Kanae Yamabe and China’s Yu Song walked away with the bronze medals. 

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