After winning a second consecutive Olympic gold medal among the heavyweight judokas, on 22 September 2000 in Sydney, David Douillet hung up his kimono, with a list of achievements that made him the biggest star in his sport in the 1990s. His successor in France is none other than Teddy Riner, who intends to go one better by winning a third title in Tokyo in 2020!
Today, among the heavyweight judokas, there is Teddy Riner, bronze medallist aged 19 in Beijing in 2008, then gold medallist in London in 2012 and in Rio in 2016, holder of a record 10 world titles, unbeaten in competition since 13 September 2010 with a series of 148 consecutive bouts won. Before Riner, there was David Douillet, four-time world champion and currently with the same number of Olympic medals: bronze in 1992, then gold in 1996 and again in 2000.
On 22 September 2000, on the tatamis of the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre at Darling Harbour, Douillet was where he wanted to be: in the heavyweight (+100kg) final facing his biggest rival, Japan’s Shinichi Shinohara, to defend the title he had won four years earlier in Atlanta. And one week after being the flagbearer for the French delegation at the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXVII Olympiad.
“You’d have to chop my leg off to stop me from going to Sydney.”
And yet getting to Sydney to defend his title had been an uphill battle. Douillet was involved in a serious motorbike accident in September 1996, two months after winning the Olympic gold medal which made him one of the biggest sports stars in his country. It took him almost a year to recover from his shoulder and calf injuries and win at the 1997 Mediterranean Games in Bari. Then came a fourth World Championship title in front of a home crowd in Paris, equalling the record at the time, when he won the final after Shinichi Shinohara was disqualified. After that, the health problems started: his shoulder still hurt; he sprained his wrist; he suffered a groin strain; and he developed back pains. So he missed out on a number of competitions, including the 1999 World Championships in Birmingham, where Shinohara won the title. For Douillet, the four years between Atlanta and Sydney were a series of ups and downs.
But as he said: “You’d have to chop my leg off to stop me from going to Sydney.” Having decided to retire from competition after this final challenge, he explained in August 2000 that: “this will be MY competition, MY icing on the cake. The Games excite me because they have a magic atmosphere, they are the centre of the world for two weeks. I’m going there to have a laugh and enjoy myself. I’m not going there feeling scared. If I was afraid of this competition, that would be serious. Better not to go at all.” He was back on the tatami just one month before the Games, at a competition in Bonn, where he was beaten in the semi-final by Germany’s Frank Möller.
A tense final at Darling Harbour
In the evening of 15 September 2000, David Douillet entered Sydney Olympic Stadium carrying the French flag, followed by the rest of the team, as Marie-José Pérec had done four years before in Atlanta. She had then achieved an impressive 200m-400m double in athletics. Would Douillet be able to follow the same path, from the Opening Ceremony to the top step of the podium? Fast forward seven days. The +100kg category started with a no-show by his first-round opponent, Douglas Cardoso from Venezuela. He then won by an ippon against Turkey’s Selim Tataroğlu, beat the Belgian, Harry Van Barneveld, in the quarter-final, and defeated Estonia’s Indrek Pertelson in less than a minute in the semi-final.
Facing off against him in the gold medal match was reigning world champion Shinichi Shinohara, the judoka who had gained the ascendancy in Douillet’s absence and was determined to keep things that way. Both men started the bout in a state of high tension. After a minute, Douillet launched an attack, attempting an “uchi-mata” inner-thigh throw, but Shinohara countered this by trying to turn it into what he and his entourage considered an “uchi-mata sukashi”, sending his opponent over his shoulders. Both judokas fell to the ground, Shinohara got up raising his arms in the air, convinced he had won with an ippon. But the judges did not agree, and awarded Douillet a yuko for his uchi-mata.
This decision gave rise to a great deal of controversy, especially in Japan, but it was deemed not to have been a refereeing error, as the Japanese judoka had control going into his throw but had not properly executed the countermove and that, as decided later by the referees commission of the International Judo Federation, “various videos [viewed] many, many times in regular speed, slow motion and frame by frame” showed that neither contestant had executed a throw since neither had “control”.
So the final continued, and despite two penalties, Douillet scored a second yuko, enough of an advantage to give him victory. He immediately announced his retirement from competition, at the age of 31, at the very top of his game! He then became a member of the National Assembly for the Department of Yvelines and Sports Minister in the government of François Fillon under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, from 2011 to 2012.
Teddy Riner on course for a historic hattrick
During his career, Douillet managed to do what Teddy Riner has not yet managed to achieve: win the world heavyweight and openweight categories at the same World Championships. That was in Chiba (Japan) in 1995. For his part, Riner lost to Japan’s Daiki Kamikawa in the openweight after winning in the +100 kg in Tokyo in 2010. That was on 13 September, and Riner has not lost a single bout since.
Douillet’s successor at the apex of the world’s heavyweights has not competed many times since his second gold medal at Rio in 2016. He just turned up to win his eighth world +100kg title in Budapest in 2017 and then his second openweight title the same year in Marrakech. So as the 2020 Games in Tokyo approach, there is still Riner and the rest. Even though, in the summer 2019 world rankings, Georgia’s Guram Tushishvili is in first place, followed by the Czech, Lukas Krpalek, and Brazil’s David Moura, none of these judokas and the others below them has ever beaten the giant from Guadeloupe in a competition. And Riner is aiming for a third consecutive Olympic title in the birthplace of judo, whilst announcing that he is ready to carry on until Paris 2024.
After the Games in Rio in 2016, when a photo showing Douillet in a kimono with his arm on the shoulder of an eight-year-old Teddy Riner taken in 1997 was doing the rounds on social media, Riner said in a radio interview that the Olympic champion in 1996 and 2000 had written to him “saying that we were now brothers. I’m proud to be part of this pretty small family of French Olympic judo champions.” But Teddy still has more history to write.