TOPTokyo LifeNews & OpinionRenowned Judoka Toshihiko Koga Dies at 53

Renowned Judoka Toshihiko Koga Dies at 53

On the day before the Olympic torch relay began in Fukushima Japan lost one of its most iconic Olympians

By Matthew Hernon

Toshihiko Koga, a gold medalist at the Barcelona Games in 1992, died from cancer on Wednesday, March 24. He was just 53. 

A renowned judoka known for having what was arguably the greatest ippon seoi nage (shoulder throw) the sport has ever seen, he enjoyed an illustrious career, winning three world championships. 

His crowning achievement came in the summer of ’92 when he managed to take home the Olympic title in the -71kg category despite barely being able to walk prior to the competition. Koga sprained a ligament in his left knee during a sparring session with Hidehiko Yoshida (who went on to win gold in the -78kg category) which looked like it would end his Olympic dream. 

Though unable to use his ippon seoi nage, he fought on and reached the final where he heroically defeated Hungary’s Bertalan Hajtos to take the gold. Widely praised for his bravery, the Saga-prefecture native was given the JOC Sports Award by the Japanese Olympic Committee. 

The victory in Barcelona made up for the disappointment of four years earlier when he was knocked out in the third round at the Seoul Games despite being one of the strong favorites to top the podium. He then briefly retired before returning to the sport to win gold at the 1995 World Championship in the heavier category of -78kg and followed that up with a silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games. 

His second and final retirement came in 2000 when he was named as the head coach for the all-Japan Women’s judo team. His most famous pupil was Ayumi Tanimoto who won gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. 

In 2003, he founded Koga Juku, a judo school for children and four years later became the head coach of the judo team at International Pacific University in Okayama. Koga was scheduled to take part in the torch relay in his home prefecture of Saga.