Shohei Ono: Judo's elusive star dominates another Olympics

TOKYO (AP) - Shohei Ono made two of his first three opponents cry when he returned to judo after an 18 mysterious month absence from the Tokyo Olympics.
Those weren't small tears either. Loud, body-shaking sobs came from the men who had to walk defeated behind Ono through the otherwise silent halls of Budokan, and gave voice to the fear of extraordinary athletes whose lives of preparation had not yet prepared them to survive four minutes hard against Japan tangible judo superstar.
The world's number 9 lightweight, the Turk Bilal Çiloğlu, screamed and hit his fists on the head after Ono helplessly pinned him to the tatami for an ppon, and his wailing echoed down the corridors.
Azerbaijan's Rustam Orujov, second in the world and best seeded in Tokyo, dried his eyes with his non-stowed gi after Ono finished the rematch of her gold medal fight in Rio de Janeiro with two Waza Aris 65 seconds apart.
Ono is the most dominant player on a Japanese judo team that is perhaps the best in Olympic history. His combination of brute ferocity and tactical invention has kept him unbeaten since 2015, even in an Olympic weight class full of incredible talent - only one of whom has ever scored a point against Ono.
Ono, 29, is now a two-time Olympic champion, having won five games in a row at Budokan and ending his return with a superiority over his colleagues that only he can demonstrate in modern sport. Not even two-time Olympic gold medalist Teddy Riner, the giant French heavyweight who passed a decade between defeats, is now as dominant as Ono.
Ono is headstrong too: choosing not to compete between the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the Olympics, choosing a path to gold that would seem foolish to a judoka without his skills.
Ono has followed this strategy before: he skipped two world championships in a row after Rio, but returned to Budokan in 2019 to win his third world title. Ono apparently believes he will benefit more from hard training in Japan's incomparable domestic system than from tournament travel to far-flung locations, and his results are undeniable.
"I haven't been in a match for a long time, but I decided to be practical," Ono said of a translator. “I tried to get involved in training. I haven't been idle. I stayed focused. "
All those months could not shake the focus of this judoka with two bulbous cauliflower ears that were shaped into mats through years of grinding and attached to a head in the form of a paint can and stacked on a thick neck.
Ono looks like a bat, but his judo is based on speed, strength and an inexorable variety of techniques. He also sometimes uses the evocative language of martial arts classes to express his goals and aspirations: for example, he said his goal for these Olympics is “to go from being judoka with overwhelming presence to judoka with absolute presence. I think I've come closer to this goal. "
Any notion of rusting disappeared when the same vicious competitor won their opening bouts on Monday.
Because Ono had not fought since the beginning of 2020, he entered the Olympic draw unset and finished 13th in the world rankings. That meant a disaster for Orujov, who would likely have made it to the final if Ono hadn't made his quarter-finals.
Ono defeated Orujov in the Olympic final in Rio and again in the World Cup final in 2019. Ono dismantled the decorated Azerbaijani champion again at the Olympic Games and finished him with 49 seconds to go.
In the evening Onos were two fights harder. His battle for the gold medal was an epic showdown with Georgian Lasha Shavdatuashvili, a fearless veteran who secured his third Olympic medal while putting Ono in several dangerous situations.
"I was a little afraid to go into the golden notch," Ono admitted.
Ono won by abruptly performing a Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi - pulling Shavdatuashvili over and sweeping his opponent's foot back - for the decisive waza ari almost 5 1/2 minutes after the sudden golden score.
"I'm a little disappointed, of course, but Ono is the best judoka," said Shavdatuashvili. “He's so strong and never makes mistakes. The best has won. "
Ono is not a person who reveals a lot in public, and he celebrated his second Olympic gold medal invisibly on the ground of the venerable Budokan, who has been sacred to him since his youth.
Ono put his hand on his heart for the Japanese anthem, but after receiving his medal from IOC President Thomas Bach, he shrugged his shoulders and stood blankly on the podium, as if waiting for a bus.
But inside Ono was aware of the moment. Before bowing and leaving the tatami, he stared for a long moment at the ceiling of the spiritual home of martial arts.
"I wanted to write every memory in my head," he said.
Ono's repeated search is over, but his games are not: he will compete in the first Olympic mixed-team event on Saturday and join Japan's best in another competition to crown a dominant exhibition. Japan won four gold, one silver and one bronze medals in the first three days in Tokyo, eight other weight classes are still outstanding.
"I'm already thinking about this team game," said Ono. “I can't relax. I just want to get one point for Japan. "
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