RIO DE JANEIRO – There will be more than meets the eye riding on freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida’s bid for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Olympic title the Rio Games.
Not only will the 33-year-old be aiming to achieve victory in what could likely be her swansong, but she has the extra mental pressure of trying to overcome a jinx of Japanese Olympic delegation captains who have not won gold since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
And whereas Japan used to be a true Olympic powerhouse in freestyle wrestling, with high expectations to dominate the medal standings, the men in particular have fallen on hard times of late after failing to secure any Olympic berths at the 2015 wrestling world championships in Las Vegas.
Eventually, they sewed up all six available Olympic spots, five coming at the wrestling world championships last September, with Rio Watari taking the final spot at 75-kg. A hobbled Sosuke Takatani punched his ticket to Rio de Janeiro in the men’s 74-kg freestyle category, with Rei Higuchi (57-kg freestyle), Shinobu Ota (Greco-Roman 59 kg) and Tomohiro Inoue (Greco-Roman 66 kg) all qualifying.
Yoshida, who will be aiming to achieve her feat in the women’s 53-kg freestyle class at the competition getting under way at Carioca Arena in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca on Aug. 18, won her third straight gold in the 55-kg class as Japan’s flag-bearer at the 2012 London Games.
Now as the first woman from her country to have the honor of being named Olympic delegation captain, she has a golden opportunity to break the hex that has dogged Japan since judoka Toshihiko Koga won the men’s 71-kg gold in Barcelona — a run of five consecutive Olympics in which the delegation captain has not taken home a gold.
“I’ll win so we can end this jinx,” Yoshida said recently.
With a track record that speaks for itself, including winning gold medals in 16 consecutive world championship and Olympic tournaments, the Mie Prefecture native was an easy choice for the position of delegation captain.
Despite being the obvious choice, top Japan Wrestling Federation officials, in fact, had been less than enthusiastic about having their star athlete selected as either flag-bearer or captain because of the pressure involved.
Yoshida herself, however, appears more than up for the challenge. Along with Kaori Icho (58 kg freestyle) she is aiming to become the only woman to have won four straight Olympic golds.
“It is an extreme honor, and if I were asked about (being named Olympic delegation captain) I would think positively about it,” she said before being chosen with the caveat that her training take precedence over her other commitments.
Compared with the past three Olympics, the situation for Yoshida has changed quite a bit. She is older, for one, and although she has maintained her legendary stamina, Yoshida is a marked woman against opponents around the world who have been busy studying video of her every move.
“It will definitely be a tough fight,” said Yoshida, who barely scraped through en route to becoming world champion for the 13th time last year as she was unable to capitalize with her trademark tackles.
No longer invincible, she had to regroup after losing in international competitions both after the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Olympics. Her last actual competition before heading to Rio came at the national championships in December last year.
To avoid fatigue, she has opted to forgo walking in the opening ceremony on Aug. 5, deciding instead take a different route than in London, where she struggled for fitness after arriving about two weeks before she was scheduled to compete.
This time, Yoshida will train in Japan until her departure to Rio on Aug. 10.
“I don’t want to have any regrets when I go to the Olympics,” she said. “This might be a culmination of my career or I might end up having to retire without achieving a fourth consecutive win. I am ready for the challenge come what may.”
The 32-year-old Icho, meanwhile, will be looking to take advantage of her uncanny ability to control matches and dispose of attacking opponents with counter maneuvers.
But although she has won all of the Olympics and world championships she has competed in, there is no denying that she too has the bull’s-eye on her back.
This was evident when the 10-time world champion suffered a shock defeat in a technical fall to Mongolian Orkhon Purevdorj at the Golden Grand Prix Ivan Yarygin in Russia in January, bringing a 13-year winning streak to an end.
To prepare and regain her form for the Olympics she has trained overseas in Poland and hopes to settle the score against Purevdorj, who has also booked an Olympic berth.
All eyes will also be focused on 22-year-old Eri Tosaka (48-kg freestyle class), who is determined to prove her dominance as a three-time world champion in her Olympic debut. The Aichi Prefecture native has a tendency for the dramatic, like when she came from behind to score a point against London Olympic champion Mariya Stadnik of Azerbaijan in the last seconds of the final for victory at the world championships last year.
She has also suffered her share of injuries. The proof will be whether she is able to maintain nerves of steel for the quadrennial showcase, which is a heightened competition in every way compared with any international competition she has ever competed in before.
The 27-year-old Takatani is being counted on to come through big for the men.
The 2014 world silver medalist, who overcame ligament damage in his right knee to gain a berth in Rio, has the benefit of already having taken part at the London Games.
He will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of his Takushoku University upperclassman Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu, who became the first Japanese man in 24 years to win a wrestling gold in London.