Okamoto boots her way to bronze

by Leeroy Betti

SYDNEY — Martial arts superstar Jackie Chan had best take cover if he ever runs into Sydney Olympic taekwondo bronze-medalist Yoriko Okamoto.

Chan has already misjudged her once.

The 29-year-old Osaka woman on Friday kicked and punched her way past the woman that Chan backed for gold at the Sydney Olympics.

Not even the mega-rich Chan’s deep pockets could stop Okamoto from defeating 1998 world junior-middleweight champion Sarah Stevenson of Britain 6-5 in the women’s under-67-kg bronze-medal match at the Sydney State Sports Center.

Chan committed a percentage of the proceeds from his movie “Shanghai Noon” toward the 17-year-old Stevenson’s Olympic funding, saying “I think Sarah needs the support more than the money and I told her I would really like her to do a good job in Sydney.” But it would take more than cash or moral support to stop Japan’s Asian Championship silver medalist, coming off a shock loss in her second match Friday, from belting her way to victory over Stevenson in the repechage bracket.

Okamoto’s matchup with the European champion started defensively as both fighters spent the first half of round one half faking kicks to test each others’ reactions.

Then Okamoto landed a roundhouse defensive kick on Stevenson and a second to go two points up at the end of round one.

Stevenson fought back in the second round with offensive kicks to Okamoto’s torso and shoulder. But Okamoto landed another defensive kick to end the round 3-2.

Stevenson leveled the score 4-4 in the last round using mainly roundhouse kicks, but Okamoto’s strong defensive kicks put her one point ahead at the final bell.

Okamoto, who trains in South Korea, beat Mirjam Mueskens of the Netherlands in her first repechage bout 7-5. She had started the day well, defeating Meriam Bidani of Morocco 4-1, but then fell 7-4 to Trude Gundersen of Norway, who went on to take the silver medal after a loss to Okamoto’s South Korean training partner and friend Lee Sun Hee, who won the gold. Lee, the 1996 world junior champion, led all the way from 2-0 in the first round and ended the three-round final 6-3 over the Scandinavian to grab South Korea’s second gold medal in taekwondo.

Okamoto studied karate for 10 years in Japan but then moved to the U.S.

“When I was a university student, I went to Oregon State University as an exchange student for a year and I wanted to do karate, but there was no dojo and only taekwondo was available,” she said after receiving Japan’s 18th medal in Sydney.

Japan’s Kiyoteru Higuchi was knocked out in the first bout of the men’s under-58-kg division Thursday.