A Japanese Games inevitably meant great interest in Judo. It hardly needs saying that it is a sport that many connect with Japan, and many home supporters expected to see gold medals won by their athletes. Not least in the category considered by many in Tokyo to be the highest profile in the 1964 Games – the open category. It was the first gold medal of the Games, but, to the shock of many, it was not won by a Japanese competitor, but instead by a European - Anton Geesink of the Netherlands.
His victory should not really have come as a surprise, for Geesink’s path to the 1964 competition had shown his huge ability.
He had attempted to take part in the Games four years before, trying to qualify as a wrestler at a time when judo was not included in the Olympic programme, but judo was always his focus. In 1961, he had become the first non-Japanese judoka to win a World Championship title, and he entered the 1964 Games as many people’s favourite.
The Japanese had chosen Akio Kaminaga to carry their hopes, but he was coming towards the end of a career that had reached its pinnacle with a World Championship silver in 1958. Kaminaga and Geesink were drawn together in the first-round pool, and Geesink won by decision. Kaminaga still progressed to the semi-finals, though, where he won a tough contest against the German Klaus Glahn.
Geesink’s semi-final was a complete contrast. He was up against the Australian Theodore Boronovskis, winning in just 12 seconds, to set up a repeat match against Kaminaga.
For nine minutes, there was little to choose between them. The atmosphere was tense and expectant but then Kaminaga launched an attack, only for his Dutch opponent to counter, and throw him to the ground. A couple of seconds later, the referee signalled ippon, and Geesink had won.
He retired from competition before the next Olympic Games, but went on to wrestle in Japan, star in a film playing the part of Samson, and become a noted administrator in his own sport. It was his idea to use blue and white judo suits to allow viewers to tell athletes apart more easily. He was co-opted on to the International Olympic Committee in 1987 and, 10 years later, became part of the select group of judoka to be promoted to the sport’s highest level – the 10th dan.