Tokyo 1964: Day 4 (Open): Anton Geesink (NED)

Anton Geesink became interested in judo after he saw a demonstration in 1948. His development was rapid. As a brown belt, he won the silver medal at the 1951 European Championships. By the next year, in 1952, he was European Champion. From that moment until the Tokyo Olympics, Geesink amassed a whopping 20 European Championship gold medals (he would often compete in both the +80kg and Open weight categories).

He was also World Champion in 1961, a competition where he had to overcome three Japanese players: Akio Kaminaga in the quarterfinal, Hitoshi Koga in the semifinal and Koji Sone in the final. This was no mean feat as these were three of Japan’s top fighters.

By the time the Tokyo Olympics came around, Geesink was already 30 years old but he was still a fearsome competitor. The unenviable task of taking on Geesink fell on the shoulders of Kaminaga, a three-time All-Japan Champion.

There were only nine competitors in the Open division, so there were three pools of three players each. In order to determine a fourth semifinalist, it was decided that the winner of each pool would be a semifinalist, and all those who came in second in their respective pools would fight for the fourth semifinal spot.

As luck would have it, Geesink and Kaminaga were drawn in the same pool, with Britain’s Alan Petherbridge being the third player. Geesink fought Petherbridge first, and threw him with sasae-tsurikomi-ashi for ippon in just seven seconds. After that Geesink faced Kaminaga, and their match went to time with no score for either player. However, Geesink came closest to scoring, with a footsweep, and was given the decision based on kinsa advantage.

This meant that Kaminaga would have to fight for the fourth semifinal spot through the runner’s up pool, which he won rather easily. In fact, in his last fight in that pool, Kaminaga managed to throw Thomas Ong of the Philippines with tai-otoshi in just four seconds.

The semifinals produced the dream final that everyone wanted to see. Geesink continued his lightning-quick winning ways by throwing Australia’s Theodore Boronovskis with sasae-tsurikomi-ashi in 12 seconds. Kaminaga had a harder time with Germany’s Klaus Glahn (a future Olympic silver medalist in 1972). But a little after four minutes, he managed to throw his German opponent with his favorite tai-otoshi for ippon.

In the final, Geesink and Kaminaga began the match by raising their arms high in the air for several seconds before coming to grips with each other. As they knew each other well, it was hard for either one to gain an advantage. At around the six-minute mark, Geesink came close to scoring with his favorite sasae-tsurikomi-ashi. This must have rattled Kaminaga, who responded with tai-otoshi.

Although Geesink wasn’t able to counter Kaminaga, he was able to drag the All-Japan champion down to the ground, turn him onto his back, and hold him with kesa-gatame. There was nothing the Kaminaga could do, and 30 seconds later Japan’s worst fears had happened. They had just lost the Open division gold, the one that mattered most to them.

After the referee called “ippon” and Geesink started to rise, one of his countrymen came rushing onto the mat to congratulate him. In a move that would forever endear him to the Japanese, Geesink brushed off his compatriot and asked him to go away.

Geesink, who had trained extensively in Japan, was determined to show his vanquished opponent the respect he was due. After they bowed to each other and shook hands, Kaminaga was seen smiling at Geesink. Many of his teammates however, were in tears. Isao Inokuma was seen openly crying by the matside.

By any standard, the Japanese team had performed superbly, winning three gold medals and one silver in judo first appearance in the Olympics. But a Japanese newspaper’s headline revealed what the Japanese judo community really felt: “Japanese failed in real objective — defeating Geesink”.

Although Geesink’s victory may have been viewed as a disaster by the Japanese, it actually helped to secure judo as a permanent Olympic sport (it was in the Tokyo Games as an optional sport). Had the Japanese team won all four gold medals, the International Olympic Committee could have easily concluded that judo was merely a Japanese sport, and not an international one. Geesink’s win helped to dispel that notion.

(I owe a debt of gratitude to Nicolas Soames, whose account of the Olympics was great research material for this series.)