LONDON (Reuters) - “Japanese judo is dead”. That was the damning verdict of Japanese journalists watching dejectedly as heavyweight Daiki Kamikawa trudged off after losing in the last 16 on Friday, consigning Japan to their worst Olympic judo performance.
Japan, the birthplace of judo, had been expected to pick up as many as half of the 14 titles on offer in London, if not more, with the majority of the fighters in their men’s and women’s teams world champions or rated world number one.
While a haul of one gold, three silver and three bronze might have delighted most countries, fourth in the judo medals table was not good enough for the Japanese team nor their public.
“People are very, very worried. Japan have to have a revolution, they can’t get the same results in Rio,” Koichiro Kobayashi, a sports reporter for the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, told Reuters.
Since 1964, when judo first became at Olympic sport at the Tokyo Games, the Japanese have won 36 gold medals and 72 in total but the men’s failure to win gold here was the first time they had left an Olympics without a title.
The results in London follow a general decline in Japanese judo in recent years. Japanese competitors won eight out of 14 judo golds in Athens but four years later in Beijing that figure fell to four.
This time round they had been pinning their hopes on new young blood, with 12 of their judokas who qualified making their first Olympic appearance.
Neither the baffled team nor the coach suggested that was the reason for the lack of titles, however.
“I don’t know why the week’s performances were what we’ve seen,” Mika Sugimoto told reporters after she won silver in the women’s heavyweight division.
“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 Ryuji Sonoda said they needed to find out what went wrong, and particularly why some of those who topped the world rankings had been eliminated so early.
“This is reality. Although the Japanese players have often won the world championships, we could not win at this Olympic Games,” she told reporters. “There should be some reasons. We surely need to find the reasons to get better results next time.”
Men’s coach Shinichi Shinohara pointed out top seeds from other countries had also failed to shine in London.
”Anything could happen at the Olympic Games,“ he told reporters. ”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.”
The Tokyo Shimbun’s Kobayashi agreed the failure was not through lack of effort.
“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,” he said.
Russia, who did not get a medal in Beijing, topped the table in London winning three gold, perhaps inspired by their judo-loving President Vladimir Putin who travelled to Britain to see them in action.
“I think that the Japanese are fierce competitors and they have a ton of bodies, they have all the resources in the world at their feet in order to win,” said American Kayla Harrison who won gold in the -78kg women’s category.
“But I think that a lot of them were the number one in the world and they had a huge target on their back.”
Lucie Decosse, who won France’s first gold for 12 years in the women’s -70kg division, said she believed Japan’s days of dominance were over.
“Many, many countries have had to suffer the supremacy of Japan over the years and this time the supremacy has come to an end,” she told reporters. “The fact that Japan is not doing very well, we have to take advantage of it.”
Editing by Clare Fallon