Waldemar Legien, Poland’s first superstar (Part 2)
The top favorite in this category was once again Japan’s double World Champion Hirotaka Okada. In Seoul 1988, Okada was the favorite on account of his good performance in the 1987 World Championships in Essen. In Barcelona 1992, Okada was once again the reigning World Champion, having won the world title in 1991, which also took place in Barcelona.
Okada started off well, despatching Rajendar Dhanger of India and Chris Bacon of Australia with osoto-gari and ouchi-gari for ippon each. Then, the unexpected happened. He lost to newcomer Nicolas Gill from Canada. Both men had a yuko each when in the final moments of their match, Gill threw Okada with an unconventional sasae-tsurikomi-ashi for waza-ari. And with that, the top favorite was no longer in the running for gold.
Meanwhile, Pascal Tayot of France, the reigning European Champion, was steadily making his way up the pool. He defeated two familiar players, Karoly Korbel (HUN) and Adrian Croitoru (ROU), whom he had beaten in the European Championships just two months earlier, before meeting Andres Franco Ramos, a player he had never fought before. Tayot had more difficulty with Ramos but managed to catch him with osoto-makikomi for yuko. That took him into the semifinal against Axel Lobenstein of Germany, whom Tayot took him to the ground defeated with sankaku.
The other player who made his way to the final was none other than Poland’s Waldemar Legien. He had done relatively well in the years after the Seoul Olympics, winning bronzes in the 1989 and 1991 World Championships. There’s no question he was a top player but he wasn’t considered to be among the favorites for gold. In many ways, Legien was still the underdog despite being the defending Olympic Champion.
It didn’t help either that he had moved up from the -78kg category to -86kg. Whenever a player moves up a weight class, there is always the lingering question of whether they are able to cope with the weight change. Not only would their opponents be heavier, they would be stronger too.
That didn’t seem to faze Legien at all. He made short work of his first opponent, Michael Odour of Kenya, throwing him with a lightning quick drop seoi-nage. Next, against Nikola Filipov of Bulgaria, he used drop seoi again, although this time it didn’t score. It did however force Filipov into groundwork. Legien very quickly got a submission from juji-gatame.
After he got past Yang Jong-ok of South Korea, Legien met the young upstart Gill of Canada, whom he threw with his favorite drop seoi-nage. And with that, Legien earned his chance to become the first man to win an Olympic gold medal in two different weight categories.
In the final, a very determined Legien came in for an uchimata straight away and launched Tayot into the air. The Frenchman managed to fall on his side and concede only a yuko.
Tayot immediately piled on the pressure, causing the Pole to incur a shido. He also very nearly scored with ashi-guruma at the edge of the mat.
Legien struck back with a kosoto-gake for koka, to widen his lead. At that point, it seemed like Tayot had decided his strategy going forward would be to wear Legien down.
The strategy was working. Legien, no longer in his prime, looked to be running out of gas when the Frenchman made a mistake. With only seconds left in the match, he came in with a sloppy uchimata, and accidentally kicked Legien in the groin. That gave a clearly-exhausted Legien a legitimate reason to ask the referee for a pause, to let him recover from the pain (which also gave him a chance to catch his breath as well).
When the referee called “hajime”, Legien lunged at Tayot’s legs and scored with morote-gari for yet another koka. Time ran out on Tayot, and with that, Legien became the first Olympic double gold medalist in two weight classes.