At the 2012 London Olympics, the USA had its best best showing, eva.
Judo debuted as an Olympic sport in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. In the twelve Olympics since then (Judo was not include in the ’68 games), the USA earned a total of just eleven medals, three silvers, and eight bronze, including Ronda Rousey’s celebrated bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
In London, the five-member U.S. judo team won two medals (gold and bronze) and two top-seven finishes.
The gold medal, a first for an American, was won by Kayla Harrison. Her road was not paved in gold. It was brutal, and ultimately extraordinarily inspiring.
The now 22-year-old was sexually abused by a former Judo coach as a child, an experience that turned her love for the sport to hate, and left her as a self-described “teenage punk.”
Harrison’s recovery took place on the mats at Pedro’s Judo Center, Wakefield, Massachusetts, far from her former home in Ohio.
When she came forward about the abuse, her mother pursued charges against her former coach Daniel Doyle. Doyle had been coaching her since she was 8, and began raping her when she was 12, or perhaps younger, on trips to South America and Eastern Europe. A child, Harrison had thought it was love.
Doyle was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, and was expelled for life from USA Judo. Harrison’s mother recognized that her daughter needed a new beginning, and sent her, alone, to coach Jimmy Pedro and his father Jimmy Sr.
Pedro spent a lifetime pursuing Olympic gold. He won bronze, twice, but never reached the top of the Olympic medal stand. However, he achieved something rarer still – the ability to take someone else there.
On Thursday Pedro gave her the same talk, by Harrison’s telling some 150 times,
“There’s one girl in front of you,” Pedro said. “That’s all we worry about is that one girl. Are you better than her? Are you stronger than her? Are you tougher than her? Yeah? Well, then, go beat her — because she’s in your way to be an Olympic champion. Today, Kayla Harrison, nobody is going to beat you. Today, you will make history. Today, Kayla Harrison is an Olympic champion.”
And so it happened.
“Just reflecting back on my life, everything it’s taken to get here, and everything that I’ve gone through,” Harrison said. “I’m America’s first gold medalist in judo — and always will be.”
MMA fans would love to see Harrison enter the cage, with an eye of course on facing another Olympic medalist – Ronda Rousey.
Harrison is engaged to a firefighter, and is herself in training to become one.
But she wants to pay it forward.
“I can’t wait to get started helping others, and helping others realize their dream and realize that there’s more to life than what they are living in right there,” Harrison said.
“I can’t wait. I want to help kids realize their Olympic dreams. I want to help kids overcome being victims. I want to help change — change the sport and change people’s lives.”
“Hopefully a little girl or little boy sees this and says, ‘Hey, mom, I want to do that.’ And hopefully we have 10 Olympic champions next time.”
Coach Pedro wants her to stay in the game, like it’s his job.
“She should inspire many to be brave, to have courage, to realize that they’re a victim and to come forward and move on with their lives,” Pedro said. “Mentally, they get twisted into thinking that they’re somebody they’re not. And Kayla Harrison stepped forward. She should be a hero. She is a hero. And she’s one brave, tough, tough girl — one that no man would want to mess with if you don’t know judo, I’ll tell you.”
“This has been a six-year program. We started back in 2005, really. We identified the top 20 kids in the country, and he put them on a high-performance plan… We put together a development for these kids and took them around the world and really groomed them to succeed here in London. And obviously it paid off.”
“We had our best judo performance ever. Three semifinalists. We had a gold medal, a bronze medal, a fifth and a seventh out of five.”
“The USA is not known to be a powerhouse in judo, but we shocked the world here at this Olympics.”
Japan shocked the world too, but not in an inspiring way.
“Japanese judo is dead,” was the verdict of Japanese journalists present as heavyweight Daiki Kamikawa lost in the last 16 on Friday, cementing Japan into their worst ever Olympic judo performance.
Japan’s seven medals (one gold, three silve, three bronze) would have beenincredible for most teams, including the USA. But Japan is the birthplace of Judo, and had been expected to earn as least seven of the 14 gold medals at the London games. The majority of Judoka on the Japanese team were either world champions or rated #1.
While 7th overall left Team USA elated, fourth place behind Russia, France, and Korea is not acceptable to the Japanese fans, or the players.
“People are very, very worried. Japan have to have a revolution, they can’t get the same results in Rio,” said Tokyo print journalist Koichiro Kobayashi. “The Japan team did their best, but the other players are very strong. The Japanese had the chance to win but missed out because of lack of experience, a moment of carelessness, or just a bit of bad luck.”
The fall was not entirely sudden. At the 2004 Athen Olympics, Japan took eight of the 14 Judo gold medals. In 2008 in Beifing, the number fell to four.
In London, the men’s team failed to win even a single gold.
“I don’t know why the week’s performances were what we’ve seen,” said heavyweight Silver medalist Mika Sugimoto simply. “I was quite confident that we practiced more than the other countries’ judo players so I really don’t know why we didn’t get more medals.”
Women’s coach Sonoda Ryuji was equally baffled.
“This is reality. Although the Japanese players have often won the world championships, we could not win at this Olympic Games,” said Sonoda. “There should be some reasons. We surely need to find the reasons to get better results next time.”
Men’s coach Shinichi Shinohara could offer little more of an explanation.
“Anything could happen at the Olympic Games,” said Shinohara. “Players from other countries have got more stamina, enough to hold on to the match. I assume they have trained steadily. Also, they have gained sophisticated techniques just like Japanese players. I thought we had done enough training and research.”
French gold medalist Lucie Decosse said the era of Japanese supremacy is at an end.
“Many, many countries have had to suffer the supremacy of Japan over the years and this time the supremacy has come to an end,” said Decosse “The fact that Japan is not doing very well, we have to take advantage of it.”
Russia meanwhile surged, coming from zero medals in Beijing, to three golds, with President Vladimir Putin, himself an excellent Judo player, watching appreciatively from the VIP section.
MMA was born from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, itself born from Judo. At the 2016 Olympics, to be held in Brazil, the the birthplace of MMA, the MMA world will once again be watching with great interest, and the deepest respect.