A dozen years of hurt have ended with the unlikeliest of consolation prizes for British judo. The silver medal won by 25-year-old Gemma Gibbons, not regarded as one of Great Britain's podium prospects, has probably rescued the sport from a bleak future in this country with funding cuts threatened if it did not get its act together in these games.
Gibbons capped a gutsy display during her series of bouts in the under 78 kg category to reach a final where she lost by the narrowest of margins, two yukos – scores awarded for relatively minor throws.
But more significantly it was judo's first Olympic prize since Kate Howey, now Gibbons's coach, took silver at Sydney 2000. Had Gibbons managed to win gold, it would have been the first ever for British judo. Instead it was the American Kayla Harrison who captured that inaugural gold medal for her country and, in doing so, wrote a triumphant chapter to her own poignant life story, in which sexual abuse by her now-jailed former coach took her to the brink of suicide.
For Gibbons, it was an emotional moment too, after beating world champion Audrey Tcheumeo in the semi-final with an ippon – judo's equivalent to a boxing KO – she burst into tears, falling to her knees, pointing to the heavens and mouthing, "That's for you, Mum. I love you." Her mother Janette, who introduced her to the sport as a six-year-old, died of leukaemia eight years ago.
Gibbons's tears matched those of her boyfriend, Euan Burton, who shed a few himself out of frustration when his own judo bid ended in his first bout 48 hours earlier.
Gibbons's emotion was evident after her bout. "It has been difficult to get here, but it is not easy for any athlete," she said. "When you are training as hard as you can but not getting results, you think 'What do I have to do?' Deep within, though, I always knew I could do something special. That's what drives you on."
Judo is a perplexing sport full of contradictions. Usually there is no room for remonstration or demonstration. You just black belt up and if you lose, bow out gracefully, which is what Gibbons did yesterday after a final in which the Harrison, 22, from Ohio, also a battling blonde, was always likely to be dominant.
But Gibbons, who lives a judo throw away from the packed ExCel Centre in Greenwich, and is taking a degree in exercise science at the University of East London, went down fighting. She had already exceeded expectations by some distance after beating three of the world's top ten en route to the final.
Watched by prime minister David Cameron and Russian president Vladimir Putin, a judo black belt, with William Hague (whose former judo spar-mate was Sebastian Coe), Gibbons opened up well but was caught by an early yuko which seemed to unsettle her. Harrison then edged further ahead with another yuko in the final minute.
In earlier bouts Gibbons had pulled out some dramatic late victory throws, including that ippon in the sports version of the Golden Goal – called the Golden Score – during extra time of the semi-final. But this time a sensational finish eluded her. However she left the arena to a standing ovation and a congratulatory handshake from Cameron.
In her first bout Gibbons had knocked out Portugal's Yahima Ramirez, a European bronze medallist, and followed this with victory over Mongolian seventh seed Lkhamdegd Purevjargal. A quarter-final win over the Netherlands' world-ranked Marhinde Verkerk followed.
The result for Gibbons is all the more impressive because she had shoulder surgery earlier this year and was not competing at her first choice weight. It has taken the heat off the sport which has seen some bleak performances since Howey's silver in Sydney. Chairman Densign White has even spoken of "a lack of commitment by some athletes". Things could improve further today when Britain's most experienced judo Olympian, Karina Bryant, in her fourth Games, has an outstanding chance in the over 78 kg division.
Putin also left happy, having seen Russian Tagir Khaibulaev win the men's under 100 kg gold.
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