A medal winner in each of the five Olympic Games she took part in, Japanese judoka Ryoko Tani is an icon in her homeland and birthplace of her sport.
The young Ryoko Tamura attended her first fights in the early 1980s, when women’s judo was still very much a minority sport in Japan and recognition remained a long way off. Even when she decided that judo was for her, Tamura had to overcome her mother’s resistance. “She would have preferred me to play the piano or to have had tennis lessons, something more fitting for a young girl,” she explains.
Standing only 1.46m tall, Tamura went on to make her name in the 48kg category, the lightest of all, eventually becoming the undisputed world No1 at that weight.
In her early years, she took inspiration from Great Britain’s pioneering four-time world champion Karen Briggs. She competed against her role model for the first time as a 15-year-old at the Fukuoka Cup in 1990, the first international women’s judo competition to be held in Japan. The teenager beat her idol on that occasion, her first major victory, though Briggs had her revenge in the World Championship semi-finals a year later, with the Japanese youngster having to make do with bronze.
Women’s judo made its official Olympic debut at Barcelona 1992, where Tamura, still only 16, reached the final before going down to France’s Cecile Nowak. She achieved star status in Japan in winning her first world title the following year in Hamilton (CAN), a feat she repeated on home soil in Chiba (JPN) in 1995. She went to Atlanta 1996 as the firmest of favourites, having won 84 contests in a row, but had to settle for the silver once more after losing to the teenage Kye Sunhui of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
She responded to that defeat by going a whole 12 years unbeaten at international level. In the process, she maintained her dominance of the world championships, recording five more consecutive triumphs between 1997 and 2007 to take her haul of titles to seven, which was then an outright record for both men and women. Tamura’s first Olympic gold medal finally came at Sydney 2000, where she needed only 36 seconds to beat Russia’s Lyubov Bruletova by ippon in the final.
It was at those Games that she met her future husband, Japanese baseball player Yoshimoto Tani. Competing as Ryoko Tamura-Tani at Athens 2004, she reached her fourth consecutive Olympic final, defeating France’s Frédérique Jossinet by waza-ari to become the first female judoka to retain her title.
Tamura-Tani’s sustained success earned her a large and devoted following in Japan and saw her become the main character in a popular Japanese comic book, while her appearances at major competitions attracted a huge amount of media interest. She gave birth to her first child in 2005 and three years later she was back on the Olympic stage in Beijing, where she won bronze after losing out to Romania’s Alina Dumitru in the semi-finals.
Not content with winning five medals in as many Games, a tearful Tamura-Tani said she would be back at London 2012. After having her second child, however, she announced her retirement in 2010 and moved into politics, winning a seat in the Japanese parliament.
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