Yasuhiro Yamashita won the gold medal in the open weightclass at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was the most dominant judoka of his generation. And he continues to be one of judo’s great ambassadors to the sport.
In an interview around 2004, Yamashita spoke about a talk he had had with an executive from NBC, the broadcaster in America that held the rights to coverage of the Olympics in the US. When Yamashita asked why judo was not so popular in America, the executive told Yamashita that it might be better to use English terms instead of the Japanese words used to describe the various judo techniques, and that the throws should incorporate a point system. More interestingly to me, the executive said that judo competitors should show more emotion. Yamashita said in the interview that he did not think that would be the right direction for judo.
I believe that the essence of judo should be protected at all costs. This essence is composed of, “Japanese language,” “courtesy and respect toward one’s opponent” and an “attitude that sets great value on the Ippon technique.” If these vital aspects of judo are lost, then the sport loses all the values that it has come to represent. In particular, I believe that the values of courtesy and respect are a most important foundation of the sport. In judo, even if you are victorious, you should avoid all temptation to show off, or to celebrate, and should maintain self-restraint and composure.
And yet, this debate over the proper way of carrying yourself as judoka, true to the way of the founder, Jigoro Kano, was why Yamashita’s victory at the 1984 Olympics was so poignant.
Yamashita carried himself stoicly during the competition, especially after he tore his right calf muscle in his opening match. He claimed in this video interview this attitude was a competitive advantage.
One of my strengths, though, is my grin and bear it attitude, and I knew there was no point in dwelling on it. I focused myself ready for the next match. If my injury became evident, it would make it harder. I was determined not to show any pain in my face and that I would chokehold my opponent to win. And that’s how I went into the remaining matches.
He competed without excuse or complaint, trying his best to hide his limp and intense pain, and ended up winning his four matches to win gold. That’s the judo way.
But when the judge signaled victory to the Japanese over the Egyptian, Mohamed Ali Rashwan, to win the gold medal, Yamashita lept to his feet. He thrust his arms into the air. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. In other words, Yamashita, who lost his chance for Olympic glory due to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, who was at great risk of losing his second chance, had somehow emerged victorious – finally, an Olympic champion. Again, here is Yamashita describing his emotions.
Before I knew it I was standing up celebrating. I’ve never shown such emotion at a victory before. I had no time to feel anything like that. My injured leg had been hurting so much. I’d been fighting the pain all the way to victory. I just felt, “Yes! I’ve done it!” (Yatta!) I don’t think I really knew what was going on around me.
At the end of the match against Rashwan, you can see Yamashita limp off the mat, pausing to turn around and make a swift bow. He quickly turns around, and limps off. He cannot bend his right knee and yet you can see him racing off the stage and down the steps and into the arms of his teammates, who then proceeded to throw the huge Yamashita into the air with glee.
He could not help but celebrate. He could not maintain his composure. And that was all right. Yamashita had climbed a mountain. And he was on top of the world.