A home Games always puts greater pressure on athletes from the host nation. The pressure is even greater if this if their first experience of the Olympic environment; it is greater still when the debutant is expected to win. And so it was for Japanese freestyle wrestler Osamu Watanabe, the world champion in 1962 and an athlete renowned for his technical excellence and speed around the mat.
Watanabe was not a giant of a man. He fought in the featherweight category, where wrestlers with great tactical and technical skill can often overcome those with greater strength. And yet, even by the standards of the best competitors the sport has known, Watanabe’s record of success is astonishing.
It wasn’t merely that he won gold, to the delight of the Japanese spectators. It was the manner of his triumph. His first three victories at the Games came by way of falls – pinning his opponents, and then came three victories by judges’ decision. But in each of those six bouts, remarkably, Watanabe surrendered no points on his way to victory. His was one of the most dominant gold medal displays that Olympic wrestling had seen, and the Japanese spectators reacted with jubilation.
Perhaps Watanabe’s performance should not have come as such a shock, though, In fact, it is believed that he was never scored upon during his entire career. Some put this as 186 matches, other at 187, others at even more, but regardless of which is true, his ability to produce unblemished victories is unmatched in the sport’s history.
Watanabe retired after the Tokyo Games, still only 23 years old, and the first Olympic champion to have retired without conceding a point. Decades later, he is still considered by some as the finest pound-for-pound athlete that wrestling has known.