LONDON — After one week of unsettling silence, Japan finally has gold again. Make that two!Kaori Icho became the first Japanese female athlete to win three consecutive Olympic titles when she claimed the women’s wrestling 63-kilogram gold at the London Games on Wednesday.
And Olympic debutante Hitomi Obara took home the gold in the women’s 48-kg class.
The two wrestlers brought Japan’s gold medal tally to four, following Kohei Uchimura’s gold-medal victory in the men’s gymnastics all-around on Aug. 1.
Icho, who beat China’s Jing Ruixue 2-0 in the final, became the second person from her country to achieve a three-peat after Tadahiro Nomura, who accomplished the feat in the men’s judo 60-kg category.
The seven-time world champion was too savvy for Jing, completely shutting down the Chinese woman with a spectacular tackle of her opponent’s legs in the first period, and brilliantly escaped a leg hold before wrapping around her opponent’s back to take the second.
The 28-year-old Icho, who powered through three opponents to reach the final, took a leave of absence after Beijing before returning to competition in 2009. Including her Olympic victories, she now has 10 world titles.
“My goal was not just to get this title (of three straight wins), but ultimately I am happy that I could achieve this feat,” said Icho. “I really wanted to try some other things out there, so I feel some disappointment about that. But getting points for a tackle was great.”
Battsetseg Soronzonbold of Mongolia, who lost to Icho in the semifinals, took a bronze along with Russia’s Lubov Volosova.
The 31-year-old Obara, a six-time world champion in the non-Olympic 51-kg class, defeated Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Mariya Stadnyk of Azerbaijan in an epic showdown, the Japanese wrestler rallying from a period down to claim a dramatic victory.
It was the first time a Japanese woman won Olympic gold in the weight class after the now-retired Chiharu Icho, Kaori’s older sister, won silvers in Athens and Beijing.
Things appeared to be going badly for Obara, who lost the first period 4-0 after Stadnyk got two holds and rolled her once, but she bounced back to take the next period before finishing off her opponent in the third with a leg tackle and a back hold.
The crowd yelled out chants of “Obara! Obara!” as she fended off a final desperate but futile charge from Stadnyk to win it 2-1. Obara, her right eye puffy and bruised, knelt down and slapped her hands on the mat as she broke down in a cathartic pool of tears.
“I can’t believe this,” said Obara. “I couldn’t have gotten this gold medal on my own. The cheers of the crowd became my strength, so I knew I wasn’t alone on the mat to fight it out till the end.”
The Aomori native retired once after failing to make the team for the Beijing Games in the heavier 55-kg class. But she made a comeback in December 2009 in the lightest weight category on the insistence of her younger sister Makiko, who had retired from the 48-kg class after getting married.
Obara, who won world titles at 48 kg in 2010-11, beat Beijing Olympic gold medalist Carol Huynh of Canada in the semifinals to book her spot in the final. Huynh took a bronze, as did American Clarissa Chun.
“They both did great!” said Japanese women’s coach Kazuhito Sakae. “I am so happy that two of my pupils could win gold medals. I told Kaori to just stay calm and do it, but I had to give Obara some advice.”