Japan won a total of 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but what thoughts crossed the minds of Japanese athletes as they appeared on the biggest stage of them all? In this series, we look back at the incredible events from Brazil that are still fresh in the collective memory of the next host country.
It was indeed a dramatic turnaround, a recovery from the jaws of defeat.
With the score at 16-19 in the third game, two points away from victory for the Danish pair, TAKAHASHI Ayaka and MATSUTOMO Misaki faced the dire prospect of losing their chance of clinching gold.
“For a split second, I thought we were going to lose,” recalled Takahashi.
Yet, even in this do-or-die situation, the Japanese pair retained a positive outlook.
“Even if we were to lose, I wanted to spring a surprise on the Danish pair, even if it was only once. This notion probably helped us turn the game around. Also, we were having so much fun that in the end we had almost forgotten what was actually at stake," Matsutomo reflected.
When Matsutomo gained a point with a net shot, the desperate atmosphere changed. With outstanding team play, the Japanese duo took the upper hand in the rallies, moved aggressively and outwitted their opponents. Before they even realised it, they had overtaken the Danish pair, bringing the score to match point, 20-19.
Takahashi grabbed the last point with an unreturnable smash. By scoring five consecutive points, the Japanese pair skyrocketed to the top of the podium.
Ranked no. 1 in the world, the Taka-Matsu (Takahashi and Matsutomo) pair, as they are affectionately known in Japan, advanced to the Olympic final.
Up until this point, they had only dropped one game at Rio 2016, in the quarter-final. However, they had had their share of rough patches. After they had first topped the world rankings in 2014, they were unable to produce tangible results at the World Badminton Championships because of the excessive pressure they had put on themselves.
“The disappointing results actually worked in a favour. Each year, we drew lessons from our losses at the World Badminton Championships, and we believe it was those experiences that were the key to our ultimate success,” Matsutomo revealed.
Meanwhile, Takahashi was highly confident about the level of their teamwork.
“In terms of our individual abilities, I doubt that we actually deserved to be ranked No. 1 in the world, but when it came to our team play, I was convinced that we were the best in the world. I was therefore confident that we could win as long as we could impose our own style of play on the game,” she explained.
The dramatic turnaround in the last phase of the final could not have been achieved without the understanding they had built over their years together. And this was demonstrated when the pair had been on the verge of defeat.
Takahashi and Matsutomo first paired up a decade before, when the former was in the second year and the latter in the first year at the same high school.
Both being singles players, not mainstays in doubles, their coach “put together redundant players to form a pair,” Takahashi explained. “Ten years before, I don’t suppose either of us imagined that we would make a pair, but I wouldn’t have discovered how much fun it is to play doubles if I hadn’t been paired up with Matsutomo, so I am grateful to her."
To this, Matsutomo responded tearfully, “I couldn’t have played on the world stage if I had been with anyone else but Takahashi. I’m really glad that we kept trying hard to pursue our dreams of claiming the world title without ever giving up.”
In the history of women’s badminton doubles in Japan, SUETSUNA Satoko and MAEDA Miyuki made a major stride by finishing in fourth place at Beijing 2008, a record further stretched by FUJII Mizuki and KAKIIWA Reika, who gained silver medals at London 2012.
By clinching the gold medal at Rio 2016, Takahashi and Matsutomo fulfilled Japan’s long-coveted dream.
It was the Taka-Matsu pair’s mutual trust and strong bonds that had been forged on the milestones achieved by their predecessors that led to the ground-breaking feat for the Japanese badminton community.