How Kaori Matsumoto saved the day for Japan in 2012

In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Japan had faced a near disaster when one champion after another failed to win gold. It was only on the last day of the judo competition that the country that gave the world judo managed to get the gold, through Hitoshi Saito.

In 2012, there were twice as many gold medals in contention as women’s judo had become part of the Olympic program (in 1988, women’s judo was only a demonstration sport). Yet, despite some 14 gold medals up for grabs, Japan once again found itself in a situation where one champion after another failed to get the gold.

It was almost a complete wipeout except for the solitary, face-saving gold medal by Kaori Matsumoto in the -57kg division.

Japan’s men’s team had many top prospects for gold but none of the seven managed to get gold, although two of them made it to the final. At -60kg, the talented Hiroaki Hiraoka lost the Arsen Galstyan (RUS). Next, at -66kg, the reigning World Champion Masashi Ebinuma lost to the then-unknown Lasha Shavdatuashvili, who threw him with a whirlwind sumi-gaeshi in the semifinal. The reigning World Champion Riki Nakaya made it to the final but lost to another Russian, Mansur Isaev.

Perhaps Japan’s weakest entry was its -81kg player Takahiro Nakai, who had no world medals to speak of. Not surprisingly, he lost to Germany’s defending Olympic Champion Ole Bischof in the quarterfinal. The team’s -90kg representative was Masashi Nishiyama, who was also not very accomplished. He lost to eventual gold medalist Song Dae-nam (KOR) in the quarterfinal. After that, the carnage continued with former World Champion Takamasa Anai losing in the second round of the -100kg division, and former World Champion Daiki Kamikawa also losing in the second round.

Japan’s women’s team was even more impressive than their men’s team, with many world champions among them. At -48kg was former World Champion Tomoko Fukumi. But she lost to the defending Olympic Champion Alina Dumitru of Romania in the semifinal. Japan’s -52kg contender was Misato Nakamura, who at the time was a double World Champion. She lost in the second round to a North Korean player. Its -63kg player, Yoshie Ueno, was also a double champion but she lost to a South Korean player in the quarterfinals.

Japan’s -70kg player Haruka Tachimoto, a future Olympic Champion (in 2016), lost to a Chinese player in the quarterfinal while world silver medalist Akari Ogata, at -78kg, lost in the second round to former World Champion Marhinde Verkerk (NED). Japan’s double World Champion, Mika Sugimoto, made it to the +78kg final but then lost to Cuba’s Idalys Ortiz.

There was plenty of pressure on the -57kg Matsumoto, who had been chosen over reigning World Champion Aiko Sato, for the Olympics. She began her campaign by throwing Slovenia’s Vesna Dzukic with osoto-gari, and the proceeded to throw Azerbaijan’s Kifayat Gasimova with kosoto-gari.

Her first real challenge of the day was the defending Olympic Champion Giulia Quintavalle of Italy, who put up a good fight. It was only in the last minute of the fight that Matsumoto was able to score with her favorite sticky-foot kosoto-gari for waza-ari. This put her through to the semifinal where she had an even harder match, against her rival Automne Pavia of France. The match dragged on into Golden Score and it took another two minutes before Matsumoto was able to put in a winning attack in the form of osoto-gari at the edge.

Her final match, against Romania’s Corina Caprioriu also went into Golden Score. It was also slightly past the two-minute mark when the decisive attack happened. Matsumoto looked to be angling for a hip throw when Caprioriu did an illegal leg reap from behind which was given a hansoku-make. And with that Matsumoto was awarded the gold. She didn’t know it at the time, but that gold would eventually be Japan’s only one for the whole competition.

Watch Matsumoto win the Olympic gold in a dramatic fashion.

Matsumoto later revealed the defeat of her colleagues in the weight classes below her, as well as their words of encouragement, motivated her to get the gold. “I was able to get gold on behalf of my colleagues Fukumi and Nakamura so I’m very happy,” said Matsumoto, who revealed that before the final, Fukumi told her: “It’s your first time here so just go for it.” Nakamura, meanwhile, said: “You’re going to get our first gold medal.”