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Japanese judo star on a quest to emulate famous father

Heavyweight Tatsuru Saito is fighting to continue dad Hitoshi's golden legacy

Updated: 2024-07-08 09:28
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Japanese judo heavyweight Tatsuru Saito, who will compete at the upcoming Olympics in the men's +100kg category, takes part in a training session in Tokyo, Japan, in November last year. The memory of his famous father drives his quest for Olympic gold in Paris. [Photo/AFP]

Japanese judo heavyweight Tatsuru Saito will be driven by the memory of his famous father when he goes for Paris Olympic gold.

Hitoshi Saito was a judo great who triumphed at consecutive Olympics in 1984 and 1988 in the+95 kilograms category.

In 2015, at the age of 54, he died of cancer, but his "spirit lives on" in his son, according to Yasuhiro Yamashita, a former Olympic champion who, until last year, headed Japan's judo federation.

Yamashita has long been convinced of the 22-year-old Saito's potential, and said that, after watching him compete as a junior, he was witnessing a special talent.

"No other heavyweight can twist his hips as much as he does when he throws an opponent," Yamashita said.

Hitoshi Saito enjoyed world and Olympic success in the 1980s, but lost to Yamashita in three consecutive finals at the open-weight All-Japan Judo Championships.

He quipped that he had "climbed Everest (Qomolangma), but never climbed Mount Fuji", but he finally claimed the title in 1988 after Yamashita had retired.

Pursuit of perfection

His son did not have to wait anywhere near as long, winning the All-Japan Championships in 2022, becoming the third-youngest victor at 20 years and one month.

The younger Saito now has the chance to scale the sport's highest peak in Paris, and warmed up by beating Tajikistan's Temur Rakhimov in the final of the Grand Slam event in Kazakhstan in May.

But, Saito will likely have to go through 11-time world champion Teddy Riner if he is to triumph in Paris, with the Frenchman looking to win his third individual Olympic gold.

"I think I can win, I have no fear," Saito said after losing to Riner in the final of the Grand Slam event in Turkiye in March.

"I will get stronger. I just have to keep improving."

Saito stands at 191cm and weighs 170kg, but his imposing physique is juxtaposed by his cherubic face and sunny disposition.

His mother Mieko has described him as a "bold" child whose behavior would surprise those around him.

While his sensitive elder brother would cry if his mother bit the head off a bird-shaped candy, Saito would gleefully gobble one down whole.

It was his brother Ichiro who first showed an interest in learning judo and Tatsuru tagged along — much to the delight of their father.

He could be a harsh teacher, drilling moves into them over and over again in pursuit of perfection.

"If my dad were here now, as soon as he'd shaken my hand, he'd be telling me what I needed to work on," local media quoted Saito as saying after he won the 2022 All-Japan title.

Memories of dad

Saito's world was rocked at the age of 12, when his father developed a rare, but rapidly developing form of liver cancer.

He believed that his father's strength as a judoka would see him overcome the illness, and it took around a month for the reality of his death to sink in.

"Little by little, once I started to accept it, I began to get more serious about my judo," Saito said.

"I felt that I had to repay the people who had supported me, especially my dad."

Saito watches old clips of his father in action, and wonders what advice his dad would give him in terms of technique.

Experts see close similarities between the two, although Saito plays down comparisons and protests that he is "nowhere near" his father's level yet.

He has ambitions of getting there one day, though, and watching the Tokyo Olympics on TV three years ago only fueled his fire.

"It made me feel, more than ever, that I want to win a medal. To do whatever it takes to stand on top of that podium," Saito said.

"At the Paris Olympics, I want to stand in the place where my father once stood."


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