Olympic Upsets: Jurg Rothlisberger (Moscow 1980)

Switzerland's first and only Olympic judo gold medalist.

Starting with the 1980 Moscow Olympics there has been at least one major upset or unexpected winner in every Olympic Games. Prior to 1980, the Olympic results were fairly predictable but from 1980 onwards, the Games have not failed to surprise.

We kick off this series about Olympic upsets with Jurg Rothlisberger, the first and only Olympic judo champion from Switzerland.

Rothlisberger was not an unknown quantity. He had won a bronze medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and was the 1979 European Champion. But he wasn’t the favorite. There were two top contenders in Moscow: East Germany’s Detlef Ultsch, the 1979 World Champion and the Soviet Union’s Alexander Iaskevitch, the 1980 European Champion.

Ultsch and Iaskevitch were drawn in different pools, so the expectation was that it would be an East German vs Soviet Union final.

Rothlisberger, who was in the same pool as Iaskevitch, had a relatively easier draw. He proceeded to defeat Bertil Strom (SWE), Henri-Richard Lobe (CMR) and Costas Papacostas (CYP) in what could not be described as a difficult passage. Iaskevitch had stiffer opposition but he also easily defeated Dambajan Tsend-Ayush (MGL), Krzysztof Kurczyna (POL) and Slavko Obadov (YUG) in quick succession.

In the semifinal, Rothlisberger wasted no time in attacking his Soviet opponent and much to everyone’s surprise, he scored first. It was given only a koka but that gave Rothlisberger the lead he needed. Try as he might, Iaskevitch could not get in a throw against Rothlisberger, who played a highly tactical stand-up game while studiously avoiding groundwork. Like everyone else in the contest, he was fully aware of how dangerous Iaskevitch was with his famous armlock. Time eventually ran out on Iaskevitch.

On the other side of the draw, Cuba’s Isaac Azcuy, thrilled the crowd with his skillful sode-tsurikomi-goshi. Even Ultsch, whom he fought in the quarterfinal, could not stop him. His victory over Brazil’s Walter Carmona, thrust Azcuy into the final against Rothlisberger.

The final was delayed by a long discussion over the size of Rothlisberger’s jacket. After about five minutes of deliberations, he was asked to change it, which he did. The referee then restarted the contest only to stop it again and asked Rothlisberger to change the jacket again. He switched back to his original one, which for some reason was now deemed to be acceptable.

When the final eventually began, Azcuy attacked with flurry of sode-tsurikomi-goshis that quickly earned him three kokas on the board. It looked like the Cuban was heading for the gold when Rothlisberger replied with a hip throw of his own, except it was harai-goshi. That scored yuko, which over-rode the three kokas. As with his semifinal match against Iaskevitch, Rothlisberger proved to be a highly tactical fighter and he prevented Azcuy from putting in any more sode attacks. And with that, Rothlisberger won Switzerland its first and (to date) only Olympic judo gold medal.