Today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite Japanese sportsmen, a Japanese gymnast called Shun Fujimoto who competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Never accuse me of being behind the times when it comes to sports!
Fujimoto’s efforts may have been somewhat obscured by Romanian Nadia Comaneci, who scored a perfect ten the very same day, but they are no less heroic for it. He was competing for Japan in the men’s team event, looking to cause an upset by beating the long-dominant Soviet Union team. At the end of his floor routine, Fujimoto felt a painful sensation in his right knee. As he later recalled, `it felt hollow, like there was air in it`.
In fact, he had fractured his kneecap. Despite understandable agony, he decided not to tell his coach or teammates about it. `The competition was so close, and I didn’t want my teammates to worry about me`. Without him, the team would have no chance of beating the Soviets.
There were two events left. Reasoning that the next, the pommel horse, would cause reasonably little stress on his broken knee, Fujimoto soldiered on and scored 9.5 out of 10, an impressive score for any gymnast with or without injury. Ridiculously, he then decided that he would have to take part in the next event, the rings, because it was his strongest. Unlike the pommel, this promised a dismount from eight feet in the air, which he would have to make if there were to be any chance of victory. Eight feet and landing on a broken knee.
By this point, he could hide the injury no longer. Team coach Yakuji Hayata noticed Fujimoto`s hobble and his sweating, grey pallor, and confronted him. However, Fujimoto`s decision was final. He had to compete.
`I knew that if my posture was not good on landing, I would not receive a good score. There was only one thing to do. I must try to forget the pain`.
He was helped to the rings by his coach. His routine was near-flawless, and the dismount a high difficulty triple somersault. He landed, raised his arms in a perfect finish, and then collapsed in agony. His score was a personal best of 9.7.
Now, the full extent of his injury became clear. Having originally broken the kneecap, he had then dislocated it when dismounting the rings, and torn ligaments in his leg. The doctor who attended him later commented,
`How he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams is beyond my comprehension`.
He was warned that to continue in the competition would be to risk permanent disability. He withdrew, and inspired by his sacrifice, the Japanese team beat the favoured Soviets by just four tenths of a point, the lowest margin in Olympic history. Impossibly brave to the end, he refused assistance to the podium when he hobbled up with his team to collect his gold medal.
Let us leave the last word to the man himself. Asked years later whether he would do the same thing again, he replied simply,
`No, I would not`.