TOKYO (Reuters) – Naohisa Takato delivered the first gold medal of the Tokyo Games for a host nation desperate for Olympic glory by winning the men’s 60 kg judo, a sport fittingly born in Japan 140 years ago.
The win against Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei left Takato openly weeping on the mat and stood in contrast to the lack of fans in an empty arena at the Nippon Budokan, a mecca of Japanese martial arts and concert venues, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is heavy. It makes me feel like dreaming,” Takato, who was later all smiles, told reporters when asked about the gold medal that was put around his neck.
The triple world champion judoka, who had disappointed the nation with a bronze medal at the 2016 Games, had a nail-biting ride to the top of the podium with three victories in the finals coming in the sudden death Golden Score period.
He had a close shave in his quarter-final in the 60kg class, winning during Golden Score overtime on a foul by his Georgian opponent Lukhumi Chkhvimiani.
In the elimination round of 16, Takato delivered an ippon against Belgian Jorre Verstaeten.
“It was frustrating in Rio,” Takato said, recalling the previous Games where he ended up with bronze. “It was a long road to get here.”
In between matches at the eight-sided Nippon Budokan, which was built for the Olympics Japan hosted in 1964, sanitation workers poured disinfectant spray over yellow tatami mats to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection.
Blaring pop, rock and dance music was used to generate an atmosphere before the bouts.
Takato’s victory underscored Japan’s strength at a sport that originated in the country. Bronze medals went to Yeldos Smetov of Kazakhstan and Luka Mkheidze of France.
Japanese female judoka Funa Tonaki reached the final in her 48kg class but lost to Kosovo’s Distria Krasniqi, just one bout away from achieving double gold on the same day with Takato.
Tonaki, a one-time world champion making her Olympic debut, won a semi-final with an ippon – judo’s equivalent of a knockout – by pinning Ukraine’s Daria Bilodid in Golden Score overtime.
It was a bittersweet day for the host nation, which has endured a lead up to the Games like no other.
The career of “King” Kohei Uchimura, twice Olympics all-around champion and holder of seven Olympic medals, came to an abrupt end when he failed to qualify in the gymnastics arena.
Japan also suffered an opening swimming session blow on Saturday when top gold medal hope Daiya Seto failed to make the men’s 400 metres medley final.
Nevertheless, many spectators watching the Games at home under lockdown took solace in Takato’s moment of joy.
“The first gold medal for Japan! It was a marvellous feat built on the bitter experience at Rio de Janeiro five years ago. Congratulations and thank you,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike tweeted.
(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by John Stonestreet and Ken Ferris)