Kaori Icho

Kaori Icho
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Who is Japan’s greatest Olympian?

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Japan, host of the Tokyo Olympics next year, is best known for its gymnasts, wrestlers, judokas and figure skaters. At Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018, it broke national records for total medals at a single Games. A look at six of its most decorated Olympians in history …

Yuzuru Hanyu
Figure Skating
Two Olympic gold medals

Largely recognized as the greatest figure skater in history (other athletes on this list can make the same claim for their events). Hanyu, a 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, became the first repeat men’s singles figure skating champion since Dick Button in 1952. The 25-year-old from Sendai rewrote the record book for highest scores (since surpassed by American Nathan Chen) with an unmatched combination of athleticism and artistry. His fans camp outside arenas — even for lower-level events in North America — dress in his costumes and shower the ice with Winnie the Poohs, his favorite animated character.

Kaori Icho
Wrestling
Four Olympic gold medals

In Rio, Icho became the first woman to win individual gold medals in four Summer Olympics. The men to do it: Michael PhelpsCarl LewisAl Oerter, Ben Ainslie and Paul Elvstrom. Icho once held a 13-year win streak and owns 10 world championships. She has been somewhat of a mystery to Japanese fans, seeking privacy and living for a time with her sister in Canada and skipping a world championships during her peak years. Icho’s Olympic career is likely over after another Japanese wrestler qualified for the Tokyo Games in her weight division last year.

Sawao Kato
Gymnastics
Eight Olympic gold medals

Owns the most Olympic men’s gymnastics titles and the most gold medals for any Japanese Olympian. The 5-foot-3 Kato was a pillar of the Japanese dynasty in the 1960s and ’70s, when the nation won five straight Olympic team titles. He earned two golds and one silver in the all-around in that span,

Kosuke Kitajima
Swimming
Four Olympic gold medals

The greatest breaststroker in history. Kitajima swept the 100m and 200m events at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics among seven total medals in four Olympic appearances. So famous in Japan, he moved to Los Angeles to escape the public eye. In retirement, Kitajima has worked in Japanese media: he covered the 2018 U.S. Swimming Championships in California and took American star Chase Kalisz out for golf for another broadcast piece.

Tadahiro Nomura
Judo
Three Olympic gold medals

The only judoka with three Olympic titles. Nomura won the extra lightweight (60kg) division in 1996, 2000 and 2004. His father coached a 1984 Olympic champion judoka. His uncle won an Olympic judo title in 1972. Nomura gained extra visibility at home given judo was founded in Japan. The Japanese are far and away the most successful judo nation by Olympic medals (84 total, 39 gold).

Kohei Uchimura
Gymnastics
Two Olympic all-around titles

King Kohei won every Olympic and world all-around title from 2009-16, including becoming the first man since Kato to repeat as Olympic all-around gold medalist. Similar to Simone Biles‘ dominance, there was a stretch where peers went into competitions vying for, at best, second place. Uchimura, the son of gymnasts, grew up in his parents’ gym and began competing at age 6. Since winning the Rio Olympic all-around by a razor-thin .099, he has struggled with injuries, putting him in doubt to make the Tokyo Games.

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Kaori Icho, Japan wrestling icon, likely shut out of Olympic record in Tokyo

Kaori Icho
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Japanese wrestler Kaori Icho, the lone woman to earn individual gold medals at four Summer Olympics, looks like she will not go for No. 5 at home in Tokyo.

Icho’s already dim Olympic qualifying hopes were weakened while she was absent from this week’s world championships. Her countrywomen earned medals in all three weight divisions that Icho could have realistically entered to make her fifth Olympic team in 2020.

Japanese wrestlers clinch Olympic berths by earning medals at this year’s world championships.

Icho’s best — perhaps only — chance to compete at the Tokyo Olympics is if one of those three medalists gets injured between now and July.

The 35-year-old Icho took more than two years off competition after earning her fourth gold medal in Rio.

She attempted to earn Japan’s 57kg spot for worlds but lost in a playoff against fellow Rio Olympic champion Risako Kawai, who went on to win a third straight world title on Wednesday.

Kawai, 24, moved down in weight this Olympic cycle, ending up in direct competition with Icho upon Icho’s return, then handed Icho her first defeat to a countrywoman in 17 years.

Icho once held a 13-year win streak overall and owns 10 world championships. She is already the oldest female Olympic wrestling champion (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games).

In Rio, she joined sailors Paul Elvstrøm and Ben Ainslie, discus thrower Al Oerter, long jumper Carl Lewis and swimmer Michael Phelps as athletes to earn individual gold medals at four Olympics. Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst joined this list in PyeongChang.

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Japanese wrestling legend fails to make world championships, Olympics in peril

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Kaori Icho‘s bid to become the first person to earn individual gold at five Olympics just got tougher.

Icho, already the lone woman to earn individual gold at four Olympics, lost a playoff against fellow Rio Olympic champion Risako Kawai for a world championships spot, according to Japanese media.

It’s the biggest setback of Icho’s comeback after taking more than two years off from competition following Rio.

“Frankly, this is frustrating,” Icho, 35, said Saturday, according to Kyodo News. “Making up for that hiatus was difficult and that has played a part.”

Icho, who won the 58kg class at the Rio Games, and Kawai, the 63kg champ in Brazil, split previous matches in December and June, marking Icho’s first defeat to a countrywoman in 17 years. Kawai moved down in weight for this Olympic cycle and into direct competition with Icho.

Kawai will clinch Japan’s lone available 2020 Olympic 57kg berth if she makes the podium at worlds in Kazakhstan in September. Icho will not try to qualify for Tokyo in another weight class should Kawai succeed, her coach said, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

“Now I wait,” Icho said, according to Kyodo. “[Five straight Olympic golds] is a rare feat, something highly out of the ordinary. My desire going forward to attract people to wrestling — either as a competitor or a coach — is unchanged.”

Icho once held a 13-year win streak and owns 10 world championships.

She is already the oldest female Olympic wrestling champion (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

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