SYDNEY — Katsuhiko Nagata was the unlikely hero for Japan at the Sydney Olympics on Wednesday when he lifted a silver medal to save the nation from embarrassment in the world’s oldest competitive sport.
The 26-year-old Greco-Roman wrestler who managed just 30th in last year’s World Championships in Athens secured the silver by defeating dual European Champion Alexei Glouchkov of Russia 3-1 in Wednesday morning’s semifinal of the 69-kg class.
Nagata, the younger brother of Japanese pro-wrestling showman Yuji Nagata, had gone to Sydney aiming for a top eight finish.
But he ended up the only athlete able to continue Japan’s unbroken record of securing medals in wrestling at every Olympics in which it has competed since the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
“I didn’t think I had a chance to win,” Nagata said after knocking out Glouchkov, who took the bronze.
“I was just happy to be here competing in the Olympics so I put everything I had into that one match.”
After saying he was going for gold, the Tokyo police officer’s optimism could not compensate for his underdog status in the final against Atlanta gold medalist Filiberto Azcuy of Cuba.
Nagata was forced to take to the floor for passivity and Azcuy — winner in the 74-kg class in 1996 — lifted and turned him over three times in quick succession to win the bout 11-1. The loss didn’t dent Nagata’s pride.
“I gave it 120 percent and I still could not reach gold,” he said. “Before I came to Sydney, no one knew me, but in the future, maybe I will be famous.”
Once a top-ranking wrestling nation, Japan faced a crisis in the leadup to the Sydney Games and was pessimistic about winning a single medal in the sport that has snared the nation more Olympic hardware than any other bar artistic gymnastics and swimming.
To date Japan has won 44 Olympic medals in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling — 20 gold, 14 silver and 10 bronze. It has 86 medals in artistic gymnastics, 49 swimming medals and 44 judo medals.
“It is significant for us to maintain the tradition of bringing a medal back to Japan from every Olympics,” Nagata said.
Nagata, who considers 32-year-old Yuji his hero, vowed to come back for another shot at Olympic gold at Athens rather than turning pro himself.
“My brother is a lot bigger than I am and I’m just too small to be a pro-wrestler,” he said.
Nagata has been Japan champion each year since 1997 and became Asian champion this year. But he managed only fifth, sixth and eighth in Olympic qualifying tournaments this year.
Takahiro Wada, fourth at the Atlanta Olympics, was more highly favored to win a wrestling medal in Sydney in the 69-kg freestyle category, while 25-year-old Chikara Tanabe was considered the one to watch in the 59-kg freestyle category.
Japan brought home two golds, five silvers and two silvers in wrestling at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and managed two golds and two silvers in Seoul in 1988. But it managed only single bronze medals at Barcelona and Atlanta.
Its last gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling — the main event of the ancient Games of the Olympiad in Greece — came when Atsugi Miyahara won the 52 kg class in Los Angeles.