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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleComedian launches stinging attack on PM
Life and Style
The collection displayed Versace’s softer side, with models wearing flowers and chiffon dresses in unusual colourings
fashionVersace haute couture review
Arts and Entertainment
'The Leaf'
artYes, it's a leaf, but a potentially very expensive one
News
Yoko Ono at the Royal Festival Hall for Double Fantasy Live
people'I wont let him destroy memory of John Lennon or The Beatles'
News
Could Greece leave the EU?
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'