Mohamed Ali Rashwan took home something far more valuable than gold from the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984. By refusing to attack his opponent’s clearly injured right leg, the Egyptian judoka lost an obvious opportunity to be crowned Olympic champion, but instead he won worldwide acclaim and inner peace.
The record books state simply that Mohamed Ali Rashwan is a Los Angeles 1984 men’s judo open class Olympic silver medallist, but the annals of sporting folklore go far further. They hail him as a true hero of modern sportsmanship, and the Egyptian could not be more content with the distinction.
“It is very important to me that a decision that I took back then in 1984 is still mentioned to this day by everyone,” Rashwan said. “It makes me happy and proud of what I did.”
What he did deserves closer examination.
Rashwan travelled to Los Angeles in 1984 as a high-class judoka. Yet to star at the World Championships – the Egyptian would go on to win open silver in 1985 and heavyweight silver in 1987 – he held “very high expectations of winning a medal”. In fact, his levels of self-belief and focus were such that he confesses, 36 years later, that his “only fear was to lose”.
That fear was comfortably put aside as the Egyptian no.1 powered through the preliminaries.
“The moment I won the semi-finals and went to the final was one of the moments I cannot forget,” Rashwan recalled.
But almost as soon as he fulfilled the first part of a lifelong goal, the parameters changed. The man he was to face in the battle for gold was, predictably, Japan’s Yasuhiro Yamashita, a four-time world champion and one of the sport’s all-time greats. What was far less predictable and far more troubling was Yamashita’s physical state. The reigning world no.1 had severely injured his right calf in the early stages of the competition and somehow limped his way through to the gold-medal bout.
It seemed like fate had presented Rashwan with the perfect opportunity to break barriers and become what he had always dreamed of: an Olympic champion. But the then 28-year-old saw it differently, very differently.
“I knew about his injury after my semi-final match, and my first thought was ‘I won’t be playing on his right leg’,” he said, unable to hide the smile in his voice, adding: “Although most of the people told me it was a great chance of winning.”
#OlympicSpirit ✨ | #Fairplay— The Olympic Museum (@olympicmuseum) June 3, 2019
« We must return to the core values of sport: an athlete must respect his/her opponent. »
Mohamed Ali Rashwan (EGY, judo)#LA1984 #judo #olympicfinalist pic.twitter.com/lAbUx3IQcc
From his team-mates to his coaches to the Egyptian Olympic Committee, people were split by this extraordinarily fair-minded decision.
“There were some people against my decision because it was a very big chance to win the gold medal,” Rashwan said. “But most of the people agreed with my decision not to play on his right leg.”
He was as good as his word in the final, passing up every opportunity to attack the almost powerless right side of Yamashita. Instead he focused on “ne-waza” – a ground battle – and, up against a man who would retire in April 1985 having recorded 203 consecutive wins, he floundered.
“No, I don’t regret anything,” Rashwan replied when asked if there is even a small part of him which wishes he had done what many would have.
“Because what I got in return is far greater than the gold medal.”
The simple facts are that Rashwan received an International Fair Play Committee award, a United Nations fair play award, two fair play awards directly from the standing president of Egypt and inclusion in the International Judo Federation Hall of Fame. In addition, 35 years later, he was awarded a prestigious Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese ambassador during a moving ceremony in Cairo.
“I am very happy I was given such great rewards for the decision I took. For me, the fair play awards are far greater than the gold medal,” he confirmed.
It started a connection with Japan that has only grown in strength since that moment, all those years ago, on the other side of the world. Not only is he often mentioned in Japanese classrooms as a great example of honourable behaviour, and a frequent speaker in schools and corporations, but he also nurtures a far deeper bond.
“My wife is Japanese, and I have two sons and one daughter,” Rashwan laughed. “Now, when I go to Japan for a visit, everyone knows me and welcomes me with great hospitality.”
As for Yamashita, the pair are yet to sit down and chat face to face about that symbolic day in Los Angles. If they did, you might imagine the smiles that would break out, and perhaps the tears that would flow.
“We’ve talked about it through the media,” Rashwan said. “His answer was he didn’t know that I didn’t want to play on his injured leg, but he was very thankful.”