One of Japan’s most celebrated sporting figures, Yamashita was born on 1 June 1957 in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. A black belt by the time he started junior high school, the precocious judoka had his first taste of the Olympics at the age of 19, when he travelled to Canada as a replacement for Team Japan at the 1976 Montreal Games.
The following year saw Yamashita emerge as a dominant force on both the national and international scene. He became the youngest judoka in history to win the open category at the 1977 All-Japan Judo Championships and embarked on an unprecedented run of 203 matches without defeat that would continue all the way until his retirement.
During that time, the Japanese maestro won another eight All-Japan Judo Championships as well as four gold medals at the World Judo Championships. While at the peak of his powers, Yamashita was nonetheless forced to miss out on the judo competition at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. His country was one of 66 nations that decided to boycott those Games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
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Yamashita’s one and only chance to compete in the Olympics finally came in Los Angeles four years later. However, having waited so long for the moment, disaster nearly struck when he tore a calf muscle in his right leg while winning a preliminary match. The favourite battled through the tournament and was still visibly limping during his win over Frenchman Laurent del Colombo in the semi-final.
Ultimately, and in spite of his injury, the Japanese judoka was destined to win the Olympic title that his glittering career deserved. His opponent in the final at the Eagle’s Nest Arena was Mohamed Ali Rashwan. The Egyptian judoka later admitted that he had been aware of Yamashita’s injury and had avoided attacking his opponent’s right side in the final. He went on to receive an award from the International Fairplay Committee in recognition of his sporting behaviour at such a crucial moment.
A year on from his greatest victory, at only 28 years of age, Yamashita retired from competitive judo due to injury. In 1993, he described his victory in 1984 as “the realisation of a childhood dream”.
His involvement with the Olympic Games continued into retirement, first as coach of Japan’s national judo team. In 2019, he was a popular choice to become the new President of the Japanese Olympic Committee and he has now joined fellow countrymen, Chiharu Igaya and Morinari Watanabe as IOC members, the highest representatives of the Olympic Movement in their country.
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