The man who couldn’t be defeated
In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at WATANABE Osamu’s incredible gold-winning streak.
WATANABE Osamu is perhaps one of the greatest wrestlers to have ever graced the Olympic Games.
Born in Wassamu, Hokkaido on 21 October 1940, Watanabe was raised in a stone dealer’s house. As a child, he would help his father load and unload 50kg stones. Later on, due to his father’s ill health, his mother opened a tofu shop where Watanabe said he 'would grind the soybeans with a stone mill... helping acquire strength'.
Watanabe initially wanted to be a sumo wrestler, but he was too small in stature so instead started freestyle wrestling at Hokkaido Shibetsu High School. It was around the time when IKEDA Mitsuo - also from Hokkaido - won gold in the men’s 73kg freestyle wrestling division at the Olympic Games Melbourne 1956.
It was then that Watanabe decided he wanted to go to the Olympics.
However, he failed in his bid to compete at Rome 1960. SATO Tamiji was chosen as the Olympic representative in Watanabe’s weight division, so with Rome no longer an option, the then 20-year-old aimed for a spot four years later at Tokyo 1964.
Ahead of the Tokyo 1964 Games, Watanabe trained under HATTA Ichiro, who was considered the father of Japanese wrestling. However, the Los Angeles 1932 Olympian frequently used tough training methods that wouldn't be allowed in today's climate.
At one point, he even had to do a ‘staring contest with a lion’ which saw him put inside a lions cage.
Then only two years prior to the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, Watanabe made his international debut and from the moment he took to the mat, he was unbeatable. At the 1962 U.S. amateur championships in New York he won all of his six bouts, securing victory within 10 minutes.
Watanabe also won both the 1962 and 1963 World Championships in the -63kg division.
Watanabe headed into the Olympic Games as the one to beat – and no one came close.
While there was pressure to win a gold medal, Watanabe was full of confidence. He told Sponichi (Sports Nippon) in 2019: "If you think about the trials you have endured so far, you can't lose."
His first three victories came by the way of falls – pinning his opponents on the mat. The final round saw the remaining three wrestlers in a round robin competition. First Watanabe defeated Rome 1960 silver medallist Stancho Ivanov. Then the Japanese wrestler's final opponent, the man standing between him and gold was Nodar Khokhashvili of the Soviet Union.
Watanabe not only secured his 186th victory but the gold medal.
“Winning was the best moment of my life,” he told Sasakawa Sports Foundation in 2012.
However, throughout his first and only Olympic Games, the 1.60m tall wrestler was never scored upon – he was flawless.
After Tokyo 1964, and at only 23-years-old, Wanatabe retired with a record of 186 consecutive wins and zero losses. He was the first Olympic champion to have retired without conceding a point.
What happened next
After the Olympic Games, Watanabe joined Dentsu, an international advertising and public relations company. However, in 1970, he came out of retirement to compete in a single match at the All-Japan wrestling tournament.
He won his 187th match in a row.
Then at age 47, Watanabe once again came out of retirement with the hope of representing Japan at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988. He had trained for a year in the lead up. However, ahead of qualifications, he suffered a back injury.
He was warned that if damaged further it could result in death, to which Watanabe replied: "It doesn’t matter if I die."
Watanabe went on to win his first and second round bouts at the All Japan Wrestling Championship, but in the end, he lost in the third round. His winning streak, which spanned 25 years, came to an end.
So what's Watanabe's career record? 189-1.
And despite it being 56 years on from that Olympic-winning moment at Komazawa Gymnasium, in an interview last year a 76-year-old Watanabe said he is still as fit, going 'to the gym every day'.