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Despite the fact that its athletes had been competing at the Olympic Games since 1900, Belgium had never managed to produce a female Olympic champion in any summer sport. In Atlanta, though the country had an athlete who looked primed to end that run: judoka Ulla Werbrouck.
Belgium had notable pedigree in judo. In Ingrid Berghmans, it had boasted one of great half-heavyweight judokas of all time, but she had retired in 1989, without ever getting the chance to compete at the Olympics.
Now it fell to Werbrouck to carry Belgium’s hopes in the half-heavyweight division. There was no doubting Werbrouck’s ability and track record. She had won medals at every European Championships since 1989. And most recently she had taken a silver at the 1995 World Championships. So she could have been expected to be arriving in Atlanta brimming with confidence; but the one thing that troubled her was the memory of her previous appearance on the Olympic stage.
In 1992, Werbrouck had left Barcelona with her leg in a plaster cast and a severe knee injury. She subsequently was sidelined for a year. However, any nerves were put to one side as soon as the competition began.
The 1992 Olympic champion, Kim Mi-jung, had retired after winning gold, but silver medallist Yoko Tanabe, from Japan, had come back to have another go at winning the title.
Werbrouck and Tanabe were separated in the pools, enabling them to set up a showdown in the final. It was Werbrouck who took an early lead, before resisting Tanabe’s attempts to force her way back into the contest. In the closing moments, Werbrouck scored again to win by ippon, to exorcise the ghosts of Barcelona and give Belgium its first female Olympic champion.