The match started off according to the script.
In round one, Saori Yoshida of Japan takes a one point lead thanks to the passivity of her opponent, Helen Maroulis of the United States. Yoshida is a living legend – she has won 13 straight world titles and the past 3 Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling. As the captain of the entire Japan Olympic team, she is expected to cap a tremendous team effort in Rio – Japanese women have already taken gold in the other three weight classes.
Going into the second half, Yoshida is still up 1-0 on Maroulis, who had never beaten Yoshida. In fact, in their first match in the past, Yoshida defeated the American in 69 seconds. Maroulis has studied Yoshida’s techniques over the past three years, in fact getting an opportunity to train with the master. But still, early in the second half, Yoshida’s victory is preordained. After all, her teammate, Kaori Icho, had already accomplished the unprecedented feat of taking gold in freestyle wrestling in four consecutive Olympics.
In the second half, Maroulis fights off an attempt by Yoshida to drag her down, and instead manages to pull Yoshida down with her right arm, and get behind Yoshida for two points and a 2-1 lead. Like Icho, who won her Rio gold medal with points in the waning seconds, Yoshida’s supporters in the stands, and in Japan were anticipating a similar spectacular comeback. But with a scant 60 seconds left, Maroulis forced Yoshida out of bounds to take 4-1 lead. That turned out to be an insurmountable lead
For Japanese fans, the impossible happened. She lost.
For Yoshida, tears of anguish streamed down her face. She had not just lost a match, as far as she was concerned – she let down her team, her country and her family. “I am sorry to finish with a silver medal despite all the cheers from so many people,” Yoshida said through tears. “As the Japanese captain, I should have gotten the gold medal. I kept thinking that I would be able to win in the end, but it got to the point where I could no longer come back. I’m sorry I couldn’t exert all my strength.”
In Japanese, Yoshida repeatedly said, “gomen nasai” (“I’m sorry”) as if she had burned down a house, or lost a company a million dollars, or lied to the press about being held up at gun point. Japanese apologize for everything, as a matter of everyday politeness, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. But in this instance, you could see the pain in her face and hear it in her voice – she believed she had failed Japan.
But as Masanori Sudoh of Nikkan Sports put it, Yoshida indeed had the weight of the world on her, far more than any mere mortal deserves.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the gold,” she said. Seeing Saori Yoshida cry and apologize like that pained me in my heart. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, carefree and full of smiles at the age of 22 upon winning an Olympic finals, she breezily stated “the gold medal was the only thing I didn’t have. But now I have all the medals!” Twelve years ago, the medals were her reward. But somehow, at some point, the medals became Japan’s reward. And in Rio, the burden of expectation was particularly great. Continuing to win is far more difficult than just winning once. You have to keep up with rivals who are studying your every move. You have to continually evolve. And she did, through 16 straight victories in the Olympics. To us, she was all powerful. But in truth, I believe Yoshida was always in a state of uncertainty, desperately figuring out how to stay ahead. And the more she won, the stronger she appeared…to the point where winning was a given. No one expected Saori Yoshida to lose.
And yet, lose she did. And an entire nation cried.
After the final match, Yoshida made her way to her mother, who watched from the stands. They embraced in tears as her mother said, “You lost, but you have this magnificent silver medal. I am so proud of my daughter. You gave it your very best. You are my treasure.”
Interviewed later in the day, Yoshida-san’s mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, reflected on the fact that this was the first Olympics where she was not accompanied by her husband, Eikatsu Yoshida, a former national champion and wrestling coach who passed away two years ago. Yukiyo explained to the press that her daughter told her, “Father will be angry with me.” But Yukiyo replied as all good mothers do, “No he won’t. It’s all right. You did your very best.”