He was 7 years old when he watched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on television, where the Japanese won three of four gold medals in judo, at the sports Olympic debut. At the age of 10, he started training in judo at his elementary school. A few years later, as a second year junior high school student, Yasuhiro Yamashita wrote a report entitled “My Dream”. He wrote that he could see himself in the future, in the Olympics, watching the Japanese flag raised on the center pole, listening to Japan’s national anthem.
It took another 14 years, but on August 11, 1984, Yamashita had a chance to realize his dream. Up to the Olympics, Yamashita had won 194 straight matches, 189 by ippon, and so was expected to dominate at the Los Angeles Olympics and win gold easily. But his golden victory was far from easy.
First up for Yamashita was Lansana Coly of Senagal. Japan had already won gold in three other weightclasses, which might have put pressure on a less experienced first-time Olympian. But Yamashita made quick work of Coly, winning by ippon in 28 seconds.
Next up was Arthur Schnabel of West Germany. Yamashita needed nearly 3 minutes, but he was able to wrestle Schnabel to the mat and win by ippon. However, when Yamashita stood up to leave the mat, he was limping, favoring his right leg. With two more matches to go, he had torn his right calf muscle during the match.
“To tell you the truth,” Yamashita revealed in this video interview, “when I tore the muscle during the move, I thought ‘damn it!’ It’s a world where the winner rules, and where you can’t afford to show any weakness. I somehow managed to get through that match without letting my opponent know that I was injured. But I was a little depressed after that.”
After his defeat of Schnabel, Yamashita had only 45 minutes to ready himself for the semi-final match against Frenchman, Laurent del Colombo. In the documentary about the Los Angeles Olympics, 16 Days of Glory, Yamashita admitted that he was concerned, saying “in my semi final it was the first time I ever thought I might lose.” While Yamashita said that he would not exploit an injury to an opponent, and would keep to his original strategy, he didn’t know whether del Colombo would honor that unwritten rule.
Del Colombo went right after Yamashita’s right leg, kicking the inside of the leg and sent Yamashita to the mat – a very uncommon occurrence. It was not an ippon, and very quickly, Yamashita turned the tables, threw the Frenchman down and pinned him for victory and a chance for gold in the finals.
There was only one man in the way of Yamashita achieving his dream. This should have been Yamashita’s second attempt at gold, but when Japan joined America’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Yamashita had to wait another four years. So here he was, a four-time World Champion, the greatest judoka of his generation, on the verge of winning gold in the Olympics.
Resolution came quickly.
Egyptian, Mohamed Ali Rashwan, had made his ways to the finals fairly efficiently. The Japanese and the Egyptian had never faced off against each other. And with the injury to his leg, Yamashita admitted that he had no strategy for the gold medal match. Rashwan went after Yamashita’s right leg, but Yamashita had shifted slightly and found air. Off balance, Yamashita wrapped his mighty right arm around the Egyptian’s waist and back and threw him down. With the full weight of Yamashita’s 128 kilograms, Rashwan flailed around on the mat like a fish flopping around for air. After holding Rashwan on the mat for 30 seconds, the referee declared the Japanese the victor.
Paul Maruyama, a member of the US Olympic judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was the color commentator on the American broadcast of the open category finals, and understood the significance of this victory. “Yamashita has won every title there is available to a judo man,” said Maruyama. “But this was the one that eluded him. He made the Olympic team in 1980 but because of the boycott, this was the one title he wanted more than anything else in the world, and he’s got it.”
And so when Yamashita got to the medal podium, Rashwan helping the limping Yamashita up to the highest stand, the Japanese remembered his dream as a 7 year old – to watch the Japanese flag climb the pole while he listened to the Japanese national anthem.
The gold medal around his neck, Yamashita realized that dreams do indeed come true.