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Haruka Tachimoto and Mashu Baker struck double gold for Japan at Carioca Arena 2 on 10 August, respectively landing the women’s -70kg and men’s -90kg title on a day of judo shocks at Rio 2016.
Tachimoto was the first to taste glory. An outsider for gold, having never won a major individual medal before, the 26-year-old began the most momentous day of her career by beating China’s Zhou Chao, sneaking past world number one Kim Polling of the Netherlands and then defeating Canada’s Kelita Zupancic. The only member of Japan’s 14-strong team who was unseeded going into the competition, she then disposed Germany’s Laura Vargas Koch to tee up a final with three-time -70kg world champion Yuri Alvear of Colombia.
Countering Alvear’s hip throw attempt with a rear take-down, the Japanese judoka then pinned her opponent for the maximum ippon score two minutes in, handing her country its second judo gold medal of Rio 2016. Alvear’s silver was the second Olympic medal of her career, following the bronze she took at London 2012. After stunning another three-time world champion in Gevrise Emane of France in the second round, Sally Conway of Great Britain shared the bronze with Vargas Koch.
Having finished seventh in London four years ago, Tachimoto was elated but not taken aback by her success: “My medal is not a surprise for me, because I had decided before that I was going to be the new Olympic champion. I have worked a lot for this so I am not surprised now. It is hard to know exactly what has changed from London 2012 until now. But I tried to stay more concentrated and not to repeat the same mistakes that I had done before.”
Top-seeded Baker then made it judo gold number three for Japan at Rio 2016, seeing off European champion Varlam Liparteliani of Georgia in the final of the men’s -90kg. Wise to his opponent’s suffocating gripping, the 21-year-old Japanese judoka used nimble footwork to avoid the Georgian’s dangerous hip throws, and tilted an evenly matched contest in his favour when he scored a yuko halfway through. The impressive Baker had won his four earlier contests by ippon, among them his semi-final against China’s Cheng Xunzhao.
“To be Olympic champion was my dream when I was young,” said the gold medallist. “The best thing to win is the ippon win. Knowing the big difference between gold and silver medal, perhaps I fought defensively. I wanted to win by ippon, but it didn’t work.”
Beaten by Liparteliani in the other semi-final, world No2 and 2015 world champion Gwak Donghan of the Republic of Korea joined Cheng in taking bronze. Several medal hopefuls stumbled out of the competition early, among them Athens 2004 Olympic champion Ilias Iliadis of Greece, who lost his first fight, against Cheng, while two-time Olympic medallist and local hero Tiago Camilo of Brazil saw his dreams of gold on home soil end in the round of 16.
Bringing a smile to the face of the home fans, however, were Refugee Olympic Team judokas Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika, who both enjoyed plenty of support from the fans. While Mabika lost to Israel’s Linda Bolder in the first round of the women’s competition, Misenga scored a yuko to beat India’s Avtar Singh in his opening match, before losing to Gwak by ippon.
“I felt perfect. I entered the stadium to fight and I felt a lot of people calling me, encouraging me. I felt at home,” said Mabika, 24, reflecting on her day. After finishing a creditable ninth, the 28-year-old Misenga commented: “It’s an honour to be in the Olympics. I fought with a champion. I’m just really happy to be here because everybody understands and knows about the refugee team, knows the refugee story. People around the world are all watching this competition right now.”