Even though pandemic restrictions make it unlikely that many Japanese will see their Olympics live, their compatriots are likely to far exceed a national winning record. As of Thursday dawn, Japan already had 13 gold medals, more than what they had brought home from the entirety of Rio 2016 and coming closer to the 16 they won at the last Olympic Games in Tokyo (in 1964) and in Athens in 2004.
The first of 145 gold medals at the Summer Olympics came from Mikio Oda, who won the triple jump on August 2, 1928 in Amsterdam. Oda’s winning jump of 15.21 meters (49 feet, 10 3/4 inches) was commemorated as the exact length of the flag pole inside the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium.
In 1936, two Japanese, Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe, entered a three-way tiebreaker for positions 2-4 in the pole vault final. After fourth place was determined, Nishida and Oe refused to continue. Sources said team officials had decided Nishida would be awarded silver and Oe bronze, but the pair found a new solution. The two took their medals to a jeweler and had them cut in half lengthwise and then merged so that each had a half silver and half bronze medal.
Since its first appearance at the Games in 1912, Japan has missed only twice. They were banned from the 1948 London Games for their role in World War II (also Germany), and they joined the US-led boycott of Moscow in 1980.
Judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita appeared on television in tears asking the government to reconsider the 1980 boycott, but he would have his chance in 1984 in Los Angeles. Yamashita, competing in the open class at 5’11 and around 280 pounds, tore a calf muscle in a preliminary round. The injury left him visibly limping in the semi-finals and the final. He came back from behind to defeat his opponent in the gold medal match, Egypt’s Mohamed Ali Rashwan. Rashwan received international accolades for refusing to attack Yamashita’s injured leg in the final.
Judo is Japan’s best Olympic sport, with 42 gold medals of all time, but the sport was widely considered to be only for men before the arrival of Ryoko Tamura. Little Tamura (4-foot-9, at most 105 pounds) won a silver medal at the age of 16 in Barcelona in 1992, then went undefeated until the next Olympic final, when she was shocking by a North Korean.
She started another unbeaten streak, passing 12 years and hitting the pitch in Sydney in 2000 and continuing through a marriage to a baseball star (and a subsequent name change to Ryoko Tani) and becoming the first judoka to repeat as gold medalist) before a questionable referee ruled her out in the semifinals in 2008 as she added a bronze medal to her collection.
Tani has been portrayed as a cartoon character and in at least two video games, and her wedding in Paris was broadcast live on Japanese television to an audience of 20 million.
Wrestling is Japan’s second best sport on the medal table (32 gold medals), and four of those gold medals belong to Kaori Icho, who went undefeated between 2003 and 2016.
Icho’s winning streak ended ahead of the Rio 2016 Games, but she recovered from her delay just five seconds from the end of her last gold medal fight to join a club exclusive. Only four other people, all men, have won gold in an individual sport at four consecutive Olympics: Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and Americans Al Oerter (discus throw), Carl Lewis (long jump) and Michael Phelps (200-meter individual medley).
Saturday’s men’s gymnastics qualification marked the end of the Olympic career of Japanese master Kohei Uchimura, who won three gold and four silver from 2008 to 2016, including two gold and one silver in the general competition.
Uchimura has previously been quoted as saying, “I don’t believe in God. I never had a lucky charm. All I believe in is practice.”
Although the man gymnasts call “King Kohei” didn’t get the farewell he expected, falling into his high bar routine, Tokyo 2020 will mark the start of several Japanese athletic legends yet to be written.
Brandon Veale is Presentation Editor for the News Tribune and passionate about Olympic history.