BEIJING - Her fighting spirit never wavered and her effort was never less than stellar, but judoka Ryoko Tani came up short in Beijing on Saturday in her quest to capture a third straight Olympic gold medal.
Romania’s Alina Dumitru defeated the five-time Olympian by “keikoku” in the 48-kg women’s semifinals at the Beijing Science and Technology University Gymnasium.
Dumitru controlled the five-minute showdown, maintaining her position with strong defense, refusing to budge or give her experienced foe a chance to mount a strong attack.
It worked, as Tani lost points for passivity.
“It was because of the referee’s judgment,” Tani said. “I just accepted that.”
Moments later, sporting a blue “judogi” (uniform), Tani vied for a medal in her fifth straight Olympiad and returned to the gym to meet Russia’s Lyudmila Bogdanova in the bronze medal round. In the other bronze medal contest, Argentina’s Paula Belen Pareto triumphed over North Korea’s Pak Ok Song.
From the get-go, the 32-year-old Tani appeared aggressive and hungry for a victory against Bogdanova.
Neither scored a point during the first two minutes.
Tani found a crack in Bogdanova’s defense, charged in and unleashed a vintage “ippon” throw, tossing her foe outside the tatami’s competition boundary at the 2:33 mark.
The crowd showered Tani with boisterous applause. She acknowledged the fans’ reaction, waving her arms in a moment of euphoria and bowing respectfully before hugging her opponent.
The bronze medal, Tani said, “brings so much joy to me.”
She added: “I couldn’t do this without my family and fans and they really encouraged me to this stage.”
Whether Tani will try to qualify for a sixth Olympiad, the 2012 London Summer Games, is still unclear at this point.
“That isn’t something that I can make a decision about (now),” she admitted. “I have to speak to the people around me who support me.
“The Olympic Games are held once every four years. I was happy to fight against the best judoka from around the world. I have taken part in the Olympic Games five times and now I want to be a good mother.”
Dumitru defeated Cuba’s Yanet Bermoy to claim the gold medal.
“Now I just realized a dream,” an ecstatic Dumitru said.
As expected, though, there were more questions about Dumitru’s methodical victory over Tani than her performance in the gold-medal match.
“My Japanese opponent is one of the sport’s great judo athletes in the world,” Dumitru said.
“Obviously, it was a dream of mine to defeat her someday.”
Tani, on the other hand, refused to speak publicly in a negative tone about her performance.
“The result was my best effort,” she said.
“My condition was good today. I have tried my best. I’m very happy even though some people are quite uneasy, but I am satisfied and this time I just wanted to win a medal. I came here with this state of mind.”
Others will suggest that Tani carried with her an aura of invincibility. She had, after all, thrived on the world’s biggest stage. Her unbeaten streak in the 48 kg (super-lightweight) division in major international competitions dated back to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, and in the gold medal match, Kye Sun Hui of North Korea defeated Tani.
Tani is a seven-time world champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. She also collected a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
She returned to the rigors of big-time competition last year after taking time off from training to take care of her son Yoshiaki, who was born in 2005, and captured a gold medal at the 2007 Judo World Championships in Rio de Janeiro.
Tani, however, failed to add the first-place medal at the National Weight Class Invitational Tournament in April in Fukuoka to her vast collection. Emi Yamagishi recorded the stunning triumph.
The loss, a humbling experience in the truest sense, gave Tani extra motivation for Beijing.
“I didn’t quite have enough gumption but this was a good experience for me before going to the Olympics,” Tani told reporters.
“I will take this as a lesson as I shoot for a third Olympic gold.”
As expected, Tani reached the semifinals, overpowering Sayaka Matsumoto of the United States in the first round, getting past China’s Wu Shugen in overtime by executing an outer leg trip and outscoring Argentina’s Paula Pareto, a two-time bronze medalist at worlds, in the quarterfinals.
Matsumoto, who was born in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, felt privileged to face a judo legend.
“I’m really glad I got to compete against her,” Matsumoto said. “It’s an honor for me.”
Despite the honor, Matsumoto’s competitive fire was lit like the Olympic torch on the previous day.
“I really wanted to take it to her, but I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do,” Matsumoto said.
“It was an incredible experience and I am disappointed I didn’t do as well as I had hoped.
“Every Olympian is tough. I’ll just learn from this experience.”
Though her emotions were running high after her loss, Matsumoto was not at a loss for words.
This is how she described the pivotal moment in her first-round defeat:
“I lost focus for a split second and got slammed. Mistakes like that can cost you the match and that one did.”
Matsumoto also didn’t need another week or month to reflect on what Tani has meant to the sport.
“She has paved the way for women in judo around the world,” Matsumoto said.
“It was a great opportunity coming into these (Summer) Games,” Matsumoto said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have this opportunity again.”
Like thousands of other Olympians, Matsumoto has been working toward this goal of competing in Beijing.
And now, suddenly, it’s over.
“I can’t commit to another four years. I’m definitely taking a break. I need some time off. The sport is really hard on your body.
“I’m 25. I’ve got the edge to come back but I cannot make that commitment right now,” she said.
Matsumoto’s final comments, however, seem to suggest she will retire.
“It’s kind of time to pass the torch along,” she said.
Also Saturday, in the second round of the men’s 60-kg division, Hiroaki Hiraoka suffered a loss to Taraje Williams-Murray of the United States.
“Right now I am just disappointed,” said Hiraoka, who booked a ticket to Beijing by beating three-time Olympic champ Tadahiro Nomura in the semifinals at nationals. “There was no pressure and I didn’t feel nervous.”
Something wasn’t right, though, the 23-year-old revealed after the match.
“I could feel that I wasn’t doing well,” Hiraoka said.
“It wasn’t because of my injury. Even with my knee injury, I could prepare well.”
Hiraoka was issued a bye into the second round.