The Japanese heavyweight judoka had envisaged himself atop the Olympic podium ever since he was “deeply moved” watching the Tokyo 1964 Games on television as a boy.
Suddenly, two decades later in Los Angeles, the 4,000 people that had crowded into a gymnasium to watch the sport’s greatest star drew breath.
Yamashita, then 27 years old, had won 194 consecutive matches ahead of the 1984 Olympic Games, sweeping aside everyone that stood in his way. The gold medal seemed his to lose.
But with one injury, just two rounds into the open weight division, the reigning world champion looked vulnerable.
“I did not feel the pain during the fight because I was concentrated on the opponent in front of me,” Yamashita tells CNN. “I did not lose my determination regardless of the situation.”
He had sustained the injury while attempting an Uchi Mata inner thigh throw against Arthur Schnabel of Germany, but somehow managed to get through the match, defeating his opponent by choke hold submission.
Barely able to walk, he still found time to bow.
“Even during the hardest fought battles, a judo match starts with a bow, and ends with a bow to show respect towards the opponent,” says Yamashita. “Once the fight was over I focused on not making the injury worse, by walking carefully and resting as much as possible.”
But Yamashita’s limp was far more pronounced by 18:45 that evening when he faced Frenchman Laurent Del Colombo in the semifinal.
And sure enough, just two minutes in, the crowd witnessed a rare moment in judo: the imperious Yamashita was thrown off balance, with Del Colombo becoming the first-ever non Japanese judoka to score against him.
Prevented from competing at the Moscow 1980 Olympics because of the Japanese boycott, he hadn’t come this far to be denied.
The 128kg Yamashita used all of his strength to pin Del Colombo for ippon after 2 minutes and 12 seconds, advancing to the final against Mohamed Ali Rashwan of Egypt — a man he had never faced before.
He only needed 65 seconds to secure gold, once again getting the better of his opponent with his unrivaled Ne-Waza technique, holding him for 30 seconds for ippon.
Yamashita, who had been determined not to betray the slightest emotion all day, clenched his teeth and looked to the heavens.
“He would have taken part in this final match even if he had a broken leg!” the commentator exclaimed.
“Oh there’s no doubt about it,” replied co-commentator and US coach Paul Maruyama. “The entire burden of Japan was on him and he had to win.”
As the anthem begun, Yamashita had to be helped onto the podium, but his dream had come true.
‘A bridge to connect the world’
The gold medalist had reached the pinnacle of his sport and, unbeaten in 203 consecutive bouts, he retired a year later aged just 28.
Since, Yamashita has occupied a number of roles, from coaching Japan’s next generation to heading up the Japanese Olympic Committee ahead of Tokyo 2020.
“I developed a passion for Judo at a young age and it is impossible to imagine my life without this discipline,” he tells CNN.
“Without Judo, I would not be the person I am today. The people I have met, the experiences I have had, the things Judo have taught me are endless.
“Today, in this fragile world, Judo gives us hope to overcome the obstacles of political tension, animosity and discrimination. By practicing Judo, people learn the core values of respect and above all, on the tatami there is no border nor religion.
“Judo is a bridge that connects the world’s people, cultures and countries.”
“The current generation are blessed to have the 2019 Tokyo World Championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in their prime time,” says Yamashita.
“I fully trust Mr. Inoue as men’s head coach and Mr. Masuchi as women’s head coach to lead the team to great success.”
“I sincerely wish that their performances will give the Japanese citizens hopes and dreams. As the president of the All Japan Judo Federation I will do everything in my power to have Japan host spectacular events in 2019 and 2020.”
The greatest ever?
The likes of Hifumi Abe and “Ippon Hunter” Hashimoto Soichi already adorn billboards across the country.
But, though Japan remains the team to beat, it’s a Frenchman that’s come closest to Yamashita in the debate about the greatest judoka ever.
Should he continue his win streak, he will break the unbeaten record Yamashita has held for over three decades.
“Judo’s global reach and rise in popularity has made the international judo scene increasingly competitive,” says Yamashita.
“For Teddy to accomplish what he has done over the years, and to continue his win streak in Budapest is truly commendable. Riner is a global icon and has contributed to the development and popularity of Judo as a whole.
“I believe his objective is not to pass my win streak, but merely to discover, and overcome, his own individual limits. If he does pass my record, I would like to warmly congratulate him.”