Montreal 1976, -93kg: Kazuhiro Ninomiya (JPN)

Kazuhiro Ninomiya was a top heavyweight champion from Japan, and indeed he was the World Champion in the Open weight division, but that was from 1973. By 1975, the top spot in the Open weight category at the World Championships had been claimed by his teammate and rival Haruki Uemura (whom Ninomiya had beaten for the gold at the 1973 World’s).

On that basis, Uemura was chosen to be Japan’s representative for the Open weight division. Normally, this would mean that Ninomiya would be able to compete in the +93kg division but in 1976, Sumio Endo had won the prestigious All-Japan (Open) Championships, so Endo was chosen to go to Montreal at +93kg.

Ninomiya had placed second in the 1975 World’s (losing to Uemura in the final) and did not medal at the 1976 All-Japan (Open) Championships. However, he did win gold at the 1976 All-Japan Weight Class Championships. So, he got to go Montreal after all, albeit in the -93kg division.

To qualify for the All-Japan weight category championship, the 29-year-old Ninomiya had to cut weight, around 5kg, in a short period of time. This proved to be very difficult for him because unlike his contemporaries, he was a very tall and lean heavyweight. To make weight, he didn’t eat rice, skipped lunch, and mainly sipped soup while maintaining his rigorous training regime. “I didn’t eat anything for the last three days,” he recalled. “On the day of the match, my body was weak and dizzy.”

Yet, he somehow managed to scrape through and earn his place on the Olympic team but that extreme weight loss regiment left a lasting impression on him. Ninomiya had two months to make weight properly for the Olympics and he made sure there was no more crash dieting. “It was a disgraceful match that made me worry,” he said. “But I was lucky that I made a mistake before the actual performance.”

Ninomiya was a classic late bloomer. Although like most Japanese champions, Ninomiya started judo young, he didn’t excel in competition while in middle or high school. It was said that he had a relatively relaxed judo life during his school days. It was only while in university and after he graduated that he started training seriously.

After graduating from Tenri University in 1970, he joined Sekijuku, a new dojo founded by the legendary Olympic Champion Isao Okano, who was known for his harsh training methods. For two years, Ninomiya trained for up to nine hours a day, doing as many as 1000 uchikomis per day. By 1973, he was World champion.

Ninomiya’s first round was a bye. His first and second matches, against a Kuwaiti and a North Korean respectively, were both won on the ground. His third match was against the East German Dietmar Lorenz (a future Olympic champion), whom he defeated with his favorite osoto-gari for waza-ari. His semifinal match, against Switzerland’s Jurgen Rothlisberger was also decided on the ground, with a strangle for ippon.

In the final, he faced Ramaz Harshiladze of the Soviet Union. The match went to full time but Ninomiya had scored twice, both times for yuko, with his favorite osoto-gari. This was enough to win him the match, and the gold medal.

For many champions, winning an Olympic gold would be a joyous occasion but for Ninomiya, the feeling that overcame him was a sense of relief. After Endo lost on the first day, Ninomiya felt he could not return to Japan if he too were to lose. “The moment I stood at the top of the Olympics rostrum after fighting hard, the emotions that welled up from the depths of my heart were neither joy nor a sense of accomplishment. Rather, it was a sense, now I can go back to my country.”