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Judo legend Nomura hopes ‘king’ Riner can match Olympic hat-trick

TOKYO: This picture taken on June 25, 2021 shows Japanese judoka and Olympic gold medalist Tadahiro Nomura posing with gold medals from the 1996 Atlanta (left), 2000 Sydney (center) and 2004 Athens (right) games during a portrait session at AFP in Tokyo. – AFP

TOKYO: France’s Teddy Riner can cement his place as judo’s “king” by winning his third Olympic gold in Tokyo — according to the only person ever to achieve the feat: Tadahiro Nomura. The retired Japanese judoka told AFP he would love to see Riner match his own triple tally at Tokyo’s historic Nippon Budokan arena, and wants the French giant to “give a performance worthy” of his talents.

Riner won his second Olympic title in 2016 in low-key fashion, beating Japan’s Hisayoshi Harasawa in the +100kg final after a defensive display that drew boos from the Rio crowd. Nomura urged the French superstar to win with a touch more panache in Tokyo, even if it means Riner edging out his Japanese compatriot for the title again.

“It would be tough to see a Japanese fighter lose, but I’d also be happy to see Riner win the title,” said Nomura, who won his first Olympic -60kg title at the 1996 Atlanta Games and defended it in Sydney and Athens. “My ideal would be for him not to be booed by the crowd, but to give a performance worthy of him as the king — to win his third title with strong judo.”

Nomura said Riner will compete with “wounded pride” after his almost 10-year, 154-match unbeaten streak was ended by Japan’s Kokoro Kageura in February 2020. That will make the French superstar “a scary prospect” for opponents in Tokyo, Nomura believes, and defeat may have helped refocus his mind. “He has a different look in his eyes, and his body is different — he’s sharp,” Nomura said. “He wasn’t in his best condition and he wasn’t prepared, and he lost. He knows that. It’s wounded his pride and he’ll be coming to win in Tokyo.”

Knockout ‘danger’
Nomura, still looking trim and toned under his sharp suit, has managed athletes and worked in the media since retiring at the age of 40 in 2015. He knows Riner well, having first met him on a trip to France in around 2007. He describes the French heavyweight as an “awesome athlete” who is “very kind and charming”, and says Riner’s 10 world championship titles make him “the king, definitely”.

But Nomura remains the only athlete ever to win three Olympic judo gold medals — at least for now. And the Japanese legend knows first-hand how difficult it will be for Riner to match his achievement. Nomura says he expected Atlanta to be his first and last Olympics when he made his debut in 1996, but he grew in confidence as the competition progressed and ended up taking home the gold medal.

He was at the top of his game in Sydney four years later, but the pressure that followed persuaded him to relocate to the United States in a bid to take the heat off. There, he rediscovered his love for judo, and decided to move back to Japan to aim for a third title in Athens.

“Many times, people said Nomura was finished, asked how long I was planning to cling on or told me I should retire,” he said. “It was a question of if I believed in myself, and how serious I was about wanting it.” Nomura thinks Riner should already have won three Olympic gold medals, but points to his 2008 Beijing Games semi-final defeat to Uzbekistan’s Abdullo Tangriev as “the danger of knockout competition”. Instead, he thinks the “hallowed ground” of the Nippon Budokan, which hosted judo at the 1964 Tokyo Games, would be a fitting place for the Frenchman to finally complete his hat-trick.

“Just going to that venue gives me a special feeling — I’ve only seen video footage of Olympic judo at the Budokan, so I’m really excited to see it with my own eyes,” said Nomura. “Riner has said he’s really looking forward to competing in Japan — the birthplace of judo. I’d love to see Harasawa against Riner in the final.” – AFP

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