Koga the mystic of the mat

Philip Nicksan looks forward to a virtuoso display by the premier judoka
Judo fighters around the world are catching up with Japan, the founders of the sport. It is some time since every Japanese competitor could expect a medal - probably gold - at Olympic level.

But there is little doubt about the final placing of Toshihiko Koga. With Olympic and world titles behind him he is the great hero of the Japanese men's team. He is the man who, time and again, has produced the goods when the honour of the country was at stake. He won gold medals at the world championships in 1989 and 1991, and the Olympic title in 1992. He then married and retired. But last year he was lured back to competition for the world championships in Tokyo and, defying predictions and the immense pressure of fighting on home ground, won again. What is more, he beat every opponent with ippon, judo's perfect score, with his favourite throw - seoi-nage (shoulder throw).

It was an extraordinary achievement, but he is exceptional - as Danny Kingston, Britain's European lightweight champion, knows only too well. Last year, in a training camp in Japan, Kingston - not a man easily overawed - sparred with Koga, and found he lived up only too well to his fearsome reputation.

"He is not very tall - only 5ft 6in - nor, and this is surprising, does he feel very powerful," Kingston recalls. "He is just very fast and very skilful - and you are over on your back before you know it. His judo is mystical, if anyone's is."

Koga's record is impressive - between 1989 and 1996 he lost only twice, both to South Koreans. When he won his Olympic title in Barcelona, he had a serious knee injury which meant he could not use his favoured shoulder throw.

Certainly, he forged his fighting spirit the hard way. "I learned judo from my elder brother Motohiro, who was taught by the great Olympic champion Isao Okano," Koga said. "Most small boys in Japan start with seoi-nage, and I did too. But my brother had some unusual variations, and I learned those as well."

Despite his precociousness, Koga failed to take a medal in Seoul, beaten by a tough Russian. It was a defeat he never forgot. "I felt I had let down my friends, family and colleagues. I had to go on - and winning the gold medal in Barcelona made up for it. It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream."

Koga is a man who loves the spotlight, and gold at the Barcelona Olympics was not enough. Though few sportsmen make a successful return to competition after retirement, he did - and the third world title was arguably his finest performance. Now 27, he is convinced he can win again in Atlanta. "I know that all my opponents study me carefully but they still couldn't stop me. And I don't think they will be able to do so in Atlanta."

The secret of his success, according to Kingston, is natural talent. "At the camp, he spent a lot of the time standing and watching, or practising with carefully chosen partners. He is a total natural."

Graeme Randall, a 20-year-old from Scotland fighting in his first Olympics, is also naturally gifted, but he will have his hands full if he meets Koga, but perhaps only the Koreans can offer a reasonable challenge.

When Kimiko Date reached the Wimbledon semi-final, a huge percentage of Japan's televisions were tuned in as she carried the nation's hopes. The same will happen when Toshihiko Koga fights to retain his title next Tuesday. And that is just how he likes it best.