Hitoshi Saitō, the first two-time Olympic heavyweight judoka champion
On 1 October 1988 in Seoul, Hitoshi Saitō achieved something nobody had managed before: he successfully defended the title won four years earlier in Los Angeles, the first Japanese judoka to achieve this double at the Games, and the first in the heavyweight category. This secured his place in the history of his sport, before he went on to coach the successful Japanese judokas at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
The weight of a nation’s expectations rested on his broad shoulders. On 1 October 1988, on the tatamis of the Jangchung Gymnasium, Hitoshi Saitō represented the last chance for Japanese judo to win a title at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Women’s judo was still a demonstration discipline (it finally joined the official programme in Barcelona in 1992), so Hiraki Sasaki’s win in the -66kg was purely symbolic. Among the men, Shinji Hosokawa in the -60kg, Yosuke Yamamoto in the -65kg and Akinobu Osaka in the -86kg had had to settle for bronze medals, as no Japanese judoka had reached the finals. Among the heavyweights, Saitō, the defending Olympic champion, had to save the country’s honour; but not just that. Since the introduction of the sport in Tokyo in 1964, nobody had won two gold medals in this category.
Saitō had not won any major competition since his victory at the Games in Los Angeles. In 1985, at the World Championships in Seoul, he was beaten in the final by the Republic of Korea’s Cho Yong-chul with a standing armlock which dislocated his shoulder. He then injured his right knee, but recovered in time to win the All-Japan Championships in 1988, which secured him his place at the Games in Seoul.
“Now I can return to Japan!”
In the South Korean capital, this rock standing 1.78m tall and weighing 140kg progressed through the rounds with no problem, before meeting Cho in the semi-final. He won by decision after a close contest, and went on to face Germany’s Henry Stöhr in the final. This last judo bout at the Games in Seoul was ultimately decided on the number of “shido” (penalties from the referee for passivity): Stöhr was given three, Saitō two. He thus became Japan’s first two-time judo champion, the first two-time heavyweight champion at the Games, and the second consecutive two-time judo champion after Austria’s Peter Seisenbacher, who had achieved the same 1984-1988 double in the middleweight (-86kg) category two days earlier.
“It’s fantastic. There was so much tension! The atmosphere was indescribable. I was so nervous,” Saitō said afterwards. He was in tears as he stood on the top step of the podium, saying “Now I can return to Japan.” He then retired from competition, and went on to become a coach, serving as the national team coach at the 2004 Games in Athens (10 medals, eight of them gold) and Beijing 2008 (seven medals including four titles). Two judokas have since repeated Saitō’s success at the Games, with two consecutive heavyweight titles: Frenchmen David Douillet in 1996 and 2000, and Teddy Riner in 2012 and 2016.
Saitō’s career was marked by the great rivalry with his compatriot, Yasuhiro Yamashita, four years his senior, in a battle for national and global supremacy. Yamashita was the +95kg world champion in 1979, 1981 and 1983. In Maastricht in 1981, he also won the open title. He was unbeaten from 1977 until he ended his career in 1985, after winning 203 consecutive bouts. He is also the only Japanese to have beaten Saitō in competition, notably on three occasions at the All-Japan Championships. But Saitō was also his toughest opponent in their many contests. Saitō’s only world title was in the open category in Moscow, in 1983.
In 1984, Yamashita was selected for the open category at the Games in Los Angeles, while Saitō was chosen for the +95kg. At the age of 23, in front of the spectators at the Eagle's Nest Arena at California State University, Los Angeles, he won his three bouts before the final with an ippon in less than 90 seconds each time, before facing the defending Olympic champion, France’s Angelo Parisi, in the gold medal bout. This was decided by a single shido (penalty), which Parisi was given in seven minutes of combat, after he had tried but failed to launch an attack. “I surprised him but I missed my chance. After that, he was wary, and I couldn’t move him. He’s too heavy!”, the Frenchman explained after his defeat. And so Saitō was crowned Olympic champion for the first time. “I climbed Mount Everest, but I never got up Mount Fuji,” he said, referring to his great Japanese rival.
For his part, Yamashita won gold in the open category, making a great finish to the 1984 Games for Japan after the titles won by Shinji Hosokawa in the -60kg and Yoshiyuki Matsuoka in the -65kg. And their destinies remained linked, especially within Japanese judo, as Yamashita was the head coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney before being succeeded by Saitō, who died aged 54 on 20 January 2015 after a long illness, having devoted his whole life to judo. “He was my lifetime rival. It is very sad to hear this,” was Yamashita’s reaction.
In September 2018, Saitō was inducted posthumously into the International Judo Federation’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony attended by Japanese Judo Federation President Yasuhiro Yamashita, who said: “My heart is overwhelmed knowing his achievements have been recognised. Let us show together how much we appreciate this moment.” In August 2019, Yamashita became President of the Japanese Olympic Committee, ahead of the 2020 Games in Tokyo, where the memory of his greatest rival and friend will be more than present.