RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan might not have many reasons to get overly excited about the taekwondo tournament at the Rio Summer Olympics.
After all, there is only one athlete representing the country, in the women’s 57-kg class.
However, that is precisely why there is hope for the country’s first Olympic gold in the sport being held at the Carioca Arena in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca district from Aug. 17-20.
Mayu Hamada became the only Japanese athlete to ever win a gold medal at the taekwondo world championships when she achieved the feat last year in Chelyabinsk, Russia. No Japanese athlete has ever won gold at a Summer Games in the sport since taekwondo’s debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
When she debuted at the London Games as an 18-year-old four years ago, Hamada narrowly missed out on a medal, finishing in fifth place.
Now Hamada is relishing her chance to take a spot atop the medals podium and her passion burns even brighter with the aim of riding that momentum as defending champion into the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, where she can prove her dominance on home soil.
“I am only shooting for a gold medal in Rio,” Hamada said last month at a send-off party, where nearly 400 people gathered in her honor at her former high school in Saga Prefecture.
The students of Koshikan High School buoyed her spirits, urging her to go for broke in Rio.
“I think it would be great if there is someone among the crowd here who could compete together with me at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” Hamada said.
She outclassed Spain’s Eva Calvo Gomez in the final of last year’s worlds, stunning her opponent near the end of the second round when Hamada held a 2-1 lead. She threw her left leg out in a feint to the torso before connecting to the side of Calvo Gomez’ head with a kick to score three points.
Gomez rallied in the third round but Hamada held on for a 5-3 victory, etching her name in the history books.
With her 174-cm frame, Hamada is able to use her size and long legs effectively to keep opponents off-balance.
And although she came up short in London, Hamada earned a silver medal at the 2013 worlds in Puebla, Mexico. She took silver again at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.
Aside from the likes of Gomez, Hamada will also be contending with 23-year-old London Olympic champion Jade Jones of Great Britain, who defeated Hamada in London but was eliminated in the quarterfinals of last year’s worlds.