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Interviewing an Olympic champion is something special and always delivers thought-provoking words and ideas; it’s a unique kind of education. Following the stories of the first 15 Olympic champions in the series, winners from 1976 to 2021, we now share the words of Keiji Suzuki, 2004 Olympic champion in the +100kg category.
Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

We introduced the statistics, the almost impossible feat and the question in our first article in the series, which can be found here:

A reminder of the question:

It could be said that to be in the company of an Olympic judo champion is to be presented with someone whom has reached an absolute pinnacle, a ceiling which cannot be surpassed; there is nowhere further to ascend in the world of sport. We often find Olympic champions speaking with freedom and certainty, unafraid to share an opinion, speaking of their lives and paths with confidence. For many we feel there is peace, and that can be magnetic and inspiring.

So the question is, did they become Olympic champion because of that character or did they become that person having won the Olympic gold medal?

“I was Olympic champion because of my personality.”

This was Keiji Suzuki’s first, very matter-of-fact statement but of course it wasn’t that simple.

Keiji Suzuki in action in Athens. Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

“It was me as a whole person. I got gold because I had so much practice, so much training. Other things like luck, I didn’t need that, just training. I trained not only for a long time and often but I incorporated a lot of analysis into my training, studying all of my opponents. This combination of training and analysis was very strong and I really checked the athletes from all countries. If you want to be strong you have to work hard and if you want to win you have to analyse and I think both of these things make a gold medal."

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"I have no big memories of what I was feeling or thinking at the time of the Athens Games; I was so much in the zone, ready to fight. Sharp focus, deep breath.

I couldn’t think about losing. I knew I would win; it was the only way. I was full of confidence and left no space to consider losing. I didn’t specifically enjoy judo back then, it wasn’t a game. I felt if I lost it would be the end of me and so I had a deep sense of personal honour and also Japanese honour.”

Where did Suzuki’s drive and absolute conviction come from?

“It’s like a 3D puzzle that starts from underground, building it layer by layer. Each piece must be really high quality. If you miss some things you can’t be a champion. At 13 I moved from Ibaraki to Tokyo to be strong in judo. I went to Kokushikan school for my junior high years, the same school as Satoshi Ishii who also came from that school and was also Olympic champion. I made the natural progression into the university and was there for ten years in total. Now Tatsuru Saito is there and actually his father was my sensei."

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"Until the age of 13 I had enjoyed judo with my friends. I loved the sport but to enjoy was not the goal. Judo was hard but I still loved it and if I really think about it, it was possible for me to endure bad experiences at judo because I loved it.

It was only in the last year of university that I set the goal to become Olympic champion. I wanted to beat Inoue and I thought I would try to get past him and be champion.

At the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, I was there as Shinohara’s training partner and I watched and thought it was not going to be my thing. The whole thing, the whole idea was so big and I was too small for this competiton. In 2000 I was there and saw Inoue be the champion and I thought, ‘I am really not enough to be at this level.’ I was disappointed. I went back to Japan and the disappointment was difficult to resolve but I continued to train and two years later I became much closer to Inoue and I thought, ‘Ok, now I can try to win the gold medal.’"

Photo by David Finch / Getty Images.

"I think only one part of me changed after winning the Olympic gold medal: my love for judo had become stronger and deeper. I won the gold medal and then I had a deeper understanding of what judo is, not just as a sport but its more full meaning. It was really important to me that although I had achieved my goal and in the moment wanted to celebrate, that I take the judo values fully and remain calm.”