Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome

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.

Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome 3

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.

Yasuhiro Yamashita tossed in the airBefore 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.

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Yasuhiro Yamashita arms raised
Yasuhiro Yamashita after winning gold in the 1984 Olympics, open weightclass, judo

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.

Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome 2Resolution 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.