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Japan achieved its best-ever Olympic haul, exceeding all expectations, by claiming a record 37 medals at the 2004 Athens Games.

News photoOlympians Kosei Inoue (left), Kyoko Hamaguchi (center) and Koji Murofushi pose before the
media on Sunday night at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

And the end of the Greek saga Sunday could not have been scripted better as the nation matched its 16 gold medals from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics after men’s hammer thrower Koji Murofushi was awarded gold on the final day after Hungarian winner Adrian Annus was stripped of the title for violating doping rules.

The haul in Athens enabled the Japan Olympic Committee to reach its 2001 “Gold Plan” target of doubling its share of Olympic medals from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in 10 years far ahead of schedule, and to contemplate a new 10-year goal. Japan won 14 medals in Atlanta.

Japan, which had a target of double digits for gold and from 24-25 total medals, improved on its previous best of 32 from the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Japan’s delegation of 513 athletes was also the largest in its history and nine of the golds were claimed by female athletes, who outnumbered their male counterparts in Athens.

The highlight at these games was Japan’s resurgence in its national sport of judo, where it captured golds in eight weight categories for its best performance ever, including the men’s super heavyweight class for the first time in 16 years.

Ryoko Tani defended her title in the women’s 48-kg class as expected, Tadahiro Nomura became the first man in Olympic history to win three straight judo titles at 60 kg and Keiji Suzuki triumphed at over 100 kg after teammate Kosei Inoue’s devastating defeat in the light-heavyweight division.

Ayumi Tanimoto and Masato Uchishiba followed Tani’s lead to the top of the medals podium and Yuki Yokosawa and Hiroshi Izumi came through with silvers.

Japan’s splash in the pool was led by breaststroke sensation Kosuke Kitajima who sent the nation into euphoria by claiming double Olympic gold.

Kitajima’s turbocharged performances in both the 100 and 200 slammed the door on American rival and world record holder Brendan Hansen, who was left trailing in his wake at Olympic Aquatic Centre.

The Japanese women also proved to be a force, with Olympic newcomer Ai Shibata claiming an unexpected gold in the women’s 800 freestyle.

Japan finished with eight medals in the pool, the most since winning 11 at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The nation also returned to dominance in artistic gymnastics with Hiroyuki Tomita helping to lead the men’s team to gold for the first time in 28 years.

The electric gold performance was reminiscent of Japan’s glory days when the men’s squad claimed five consecutive titles from 1960 to 1976, with the added bonus of one silver and two bronze medals in individual events.

Japan’s four women wrestlers muscled their way on to the medals podium with Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho winning golds and Chiharu Icho, Saori’s older sister, taking the silver. Five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi’s bronze medal was a slight disappointment.

Then came Mizuki Noguchi, the little engine in the women’s marathon, who sizzled on the legendary course from Marathon to Panathinaiko Stadium, where the first modern Games were held in 1896.

The pintsized Noguchi shocked the nation by outpacing reigning world champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya and beating out world record holder Paula Radcliffe of Britain, who broke down in tears on the side of the road unable to complete the race.

Japan struggled in its seven team sports with the baseball team and women’s softball squad both having to settle for bronze and the men’s and women’s soccer teams falling far off the mark in their quest for medals.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge praised Japan’s medal haul, which was more than double the medal tally from Sydney of 18 four years ago.

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