Gymnastic innovator on bar and vault
The name of Japan’s five-time Olympic gold medallist Mitsuo Tsukahara is immortalised in gymnastics thanks to his invention of two widely performed skills for the horizontal bar and vault, both of which bear his name.
First gold in Mexico City Mitsuo Tsukahara was a relatively late starter in gymnastics terms, only starting to train at the age of 13 in 1960. However, he was also a quick learner and a natural talent. Eight years later he was on his way to his first Olympic Games, in Mexico City, as a member of the Japan team that won its third consecutive team gold. The individual events at Mexico 1968 were dominated by Tsukahara’s team-mate Sawao Kato, who won three golds. Meanwhile, Tsukahara finished 18th in the individual all-around event, while he just missed out on a podium place in the floor, taking fourth place.
The ‘Tsukahara’ is bornDuring the 1970 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Ljubljana (SLV), Tsukahara secured the vault title with a dismount of his own invention: a backward salto with a half twist on entry, followed by a reverse 1.5 twist. The “Tsukahara vault”, though highly technical, remains widely used today, and even has its own entry in the dictionary. There was more innovation to come at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where Tsukahara and his compatriots dominated the team event for a fourth successive Games. He then put in a scintillating performance in the individual horizontal bar, where his perfectly executed dismount with a full-twisting double salto in the tuck position had the crowd bursting into applause, earning Tsukahara a maximum score of 9.9, another gold... and another skill that would forever more carry his name. Similar tumbles or dismounts across all of the different apparatus are now commonly known as “a Tsukahara”.
High five in Montreal In Montreal in 1976, Tsukahara raised the bar further still. In the team competition Japan faced fierce competition from the USSR, and going into the very final routine everything was still in the balance. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Tsukahara’s unique interpretation on the horizontal bar scored 9.9, which was enough to seal a fifth consecutive Olympic team success for Japan. In the individual competitions, Tsukahara went on to retain his title in the high bar, took silver in the vault, bronze on the parallel bars and in the individual all-around event. His overall tally in three editions of the Games stood at five golds, one silver and three bronze medals.
Like father, like sonIn 1977, Tsukahara’s son Naoya was born. His mother was Chieko Oda, was also an Olympic gymnast, and so it was not surprising that Naoya eventually followed in his parents’ footsteps. Indeed, he went on to win six medals at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, and like his father was a member of the Japanese team at three Olympic Games: Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, winning an all-around team gold at the latter.