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In the 1960s and 1970s Japan dominated the Olympic gymnastics competitions, and Sawao Kato was their leading light, winning eight gold medals – more than any other male gymnast in history.
Born in the prefecture of Niigata, the son of a railway engineer, Sawao Kato shone academically as a child, and appeared to show little aptitude or interest in sport. That all changed when he first entered a gymnastics hall, where he harnessed his ability to learn quickly and work hard to make rapid progress on the horizontal bar. He continued that progress at Kyoiku University in Tokyo, where he was a brilliant student and excelled on each of the various apparatus, working under the famous coach Akitomo Kaneko. At 18, Kato made his debut in the national team where his remarkable levels of dedication, precision of movement and self-discipline were soon paying dividends.
Always ready to apply his own innovative ideas in training, most famously deploying the trampoline to practice his routines, Kato made his Olympic bow in Mexico City in 1968. Despite the fact he was nursing an Achilles tendon injury, it turned out to be a golden debut. As was the case throughout his career, he faced intense competition from the Soviet gymnasts, no more so than his duel with Mikhail Voronin in the individual all-around competition, which brought him his first gold. The Japan-Soviet rivalry resumed in the team competition, which yielded another gold for Kato and his team-mates. And he then claimed a second individual gold in the floor exercise, before taking the bronze in the rings.
In 1972 in Munich, Japan once again got the better of the USSR in the team competition, while Kato retained his title in the individual all-around, added another gold in the parallel bars, and then took silver on the vault and bronze on the horizontal bar. Four years later in Montreal, he missed out on a third successive individual all-round gold by a single point, losing out to his Soviet rival Nikolai Andrianov. However, the Japanese men’s team once again prevailed over the USSR in the team competition, this time by a mere four tenths of a point. Kato then completed the successful defence of his parallel bars title, taking his overall tally of Olympic golds to eight, more than any other male gymnast in history.
Kato called time on his competitive career at the age of 29, and went on to become a professor at the same university where he had completed his studies (which had been renamed Tsukuba University). Until 1998, he served as the Vice President of the Technical Commission of the International Gymnastics Federation. Kato was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2001.