Sawao Kato

Kaori Icho
Getty Images

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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