RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan failed to claim judo gold at the Rio Olympics for the second straight day as Masashi Ebinuma and Masato Nakamura both had to settle for bronze medals on Sunday.
Nakamura lost on points to Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo in her women’s 52-kg semifinal shortly before Ebinuma flamed out at the same stage in the men’s 66 kg after an ill-judged attack that was countered by South Korean reigning world champion An Baul.
Nakamura beat local favorite Erika Miranda of Brazil and Ebinuma overcame Canada’s Antoine Bouchard to make it four bronze medals out of four for Japanese judoka so far in Rio.
But both Nakamura and Ebinuma — both three-time world champions — were left frustrated by their inability to capture the biggest prize.
“A lot of people were expecting me to win the gold medal, so to end up with the bronze is pretty pathetic,” said the 26-year-old Ebinuma, who also won bronze at the London Olympics four years ago.
“Four years ago I was young and I managed to win the bronze. This time it feels a little different. But I had excellent preparation, and even though it is frustrating, I’m glad I kept fighting right until the end of the bronze-medal match,”
Ebinuma’s semifinal with An went deep into golden score time before the Japanese judoka tried to execute one of his trademark seoi-nage throws, only to find himself out of gold-medal contention after the Korean countered to land a yuko.
“Both myself and An had difficult moments in the match but I lost the battle of wills,” said Ebinuma. “I’ve been working hard for four years to win the gold medal, and for me to let my spirits drop in the semifinal is a regret that will live with me for the rest of my life.”
Ebinuma dusted himself off to dispatch Bouchard by ippon in the bronze-medal match, but Japan men’s team coach Kosei Inoue was left counting the cost after watching Naohisa Takato also miss out on gold in the 60-kg category the previous day.
“It was the same as yesterday,” said Inoue. “Each judoka is aiming for a gold medal and I believe they can do it, so it’s disappointing. Ebinuma has had to overcome a lot of problems over the past four years and he fought well today, and I feel responsible that I couldn’t do my bit to help him win.”
Nakamura, who won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but fell at the first hurdle in London four years ago, lost a close semifinal against Kelmendi after incurring a penalty early in the match.
Kelmendi went on to claim Kosovo’s first-ever gold medal when she beat Odette Giuffrida of Italy in the final, and Nakamura accepted that she had lost to a stronger opponent.
“I wanted the gold medal, but I’m glad I could get a bronze,” said the 27-year-old. “I was confident I could turn the match around but my opponent was fighting for her life and I couldn’t do it. That’s the level I’m currently at.”
Nakamura underwent two surgeries to repair ligament damage in her leg after the London Olympics, forcing her to sit on the sidelines for a year until her return in 2013.
“Soon after the London Games, I wasn’t thinking about competing in Rio,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be able to compete on this stage.”
Japan women’s team coach Mitsutoshi Nanjo made no excuses despite the match being decided by the referee’s penalty decision.
“More than looking at the referee’s decision, we knew that Kelmendi would be looking for penalties,” said Nanjo. “That’s part of judo. It has nothing to do with the referee.”