Juji gatame, seoi nage, ude garami and sangaku jime refer to judo techniques that are unknown to many. Not so for Ryoko Tamura, who learned these at a very young age and quickly reached the top in women’s judo. Her first participation in the Games yielded a silver medal. Four years later, she again took silver, but this result, already more than honourable, was not enough for her. Tamura did not give up the fight, and won the Olympic title at the next Games. She repeated this feat four years later in Athens in 2004. Let’s celebrate the 32nd birthday of this tenacious judoka by joining her on the Olympic tatami.
When gold is not the order of the day
At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Tamura, only 16 years old, won the silver medal in the extra-lightweight (under 48kg) category. She continued her rise to the top by winning two affiliated World Championships (1993 and 1995) and was the big favourite at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The flag bearer for the Japanese delegation at the Opening Ceremony of these centenary Games, proof of her popularity, she had with her the support of an entire nation. Against all expectations, she lost the final against the younger North Korean, 16-year-old Sun Hui Kye, who was competing in her first international tournament.
The Japanese star was unsettled by this surprise defeat, which put an end to 84 uninterrupted victories: “I was questioning myself over and over. Can I endure all the tough training again? Can I win the gold in Sydney? Then I started to think that it was easy to retire, but that I would regret it for the rest of my life.” A state of mind which would have pleased the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, first International Olympic Committee member to Japan, for whom judo was more than a collection of techniques: it was a way of developing physical, mental and moral qualities harmoniously.
In 2000, at the Sydney Games, at 1.46 metres tall, the shortest athlete of the tournament carried immense pressure on her shoulders: Tamura had the choice between winning and winning. "I'd like to make the year 2000 the most memorable one in my life." In the final, encouraged by a red and white crowd, she managed a perfect uchimata (inner thigh throw) and won with an ippon (“one full point” – the highest score a fighter can achieve). It took less than 40 seconds to take the much awaited gold. Banzai! Hoorah!
At the Athens 2004 Games, although she was in pain through an ankle injury, Tamura was not going to give up her title: “I was determined to win no matter how much it hurt”.
Woman of stature
No need to be tall, strong or imposing to have the profile of a champion. The tiny Japanese woman is proof of this. Not only with her did women make an entry at the Olympic Games in judo in Barcelona in 1992, but they also benefited from a model of will-power, courage and self-control. Otanjyoubi omedetou! Happy Birthday Ryoko!