Member Since: 10/12/07
The lack of a gold medal win at the Olympics is a well known frustration in the USA judo community. The eternal search for an answer leads to just about as many theories as there are judokas in the 50 states.
To me, there is a just a bit of randomness to it. We've had plenty of judokas who could have won on any given day. The names Swain, Pedro, Rousey, Berland, and the person who came closest; Asano jump into my mind. It just did not happen that day.
But if Americans have never won the gold medal, at least we can take pride in being the giant killers in 2 different Olympiads. The giant killer in both was Leo White in 1984 and 1992
What's a giant killer? The giant killer is the guy who many believe has no chance against the number 1 and then beats them. The giant killer should be in the first round. There's a little bit of randomness to this as well. You have to draw the #1 seed in the first or second round.
American Leo White had the "luck" to draw the #1 seed Robert Van De Walle of Belgium in the first round in 1984 and in 1992 he drew #1 Stephane Traineau of France in the first or second round.
Leo dominated the USA heavyweight division over three decades. He was a Pan American champion, winning his first title there in the middle of the 1970's. Disco was at its height when Leo was beginning his domination of the division and by the time he fought in his last Olympic Trials in 1996, The Smashing Pumpkins were topping the alternate charts. Leo even made a mini- comeback in 2004 winning the National Championship.
But outside of the PJU, Leo's results would not meet the criteria for being elected into a Judo Hall of Fame. It might not even be fair to say that, because the truth of the matter is that back then it wasn't required for athletes to travel and chase points. Leo was such a dominate player in the USA that his presence on the Olympic team was virtually assured during his career.
Though he might not meet HOF status, you don't have to be in the hall to be legendary. All it takes is one moment of magic. Leo White had two of them.
The first one came in 1984 in Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to have gone and witnessed this moment in history. I had just moved to Southern California a few months earlier, and my father got me some free tickets from a former Olympic player who began his study of judo with him. Thank God, because I was a single father of two at the time, and I wouldn't have been able to afford tickets.
Leo faced Robert Van De Walle. He was a beast. He had massive pickups, and I think he was the current world champion at the time, which is how he was the #1 seed and favorite. Van De Walle also had a long and admittedly more successful career than Leo.
But Leo took from Van De Walle the opportunity to add Olympic Gold hardware at the time he was at his best. The memory is hazy, but I remember Leo throwing him for a big ippon and I'm almost 100% certain it was his signature Soto Maki Komi that finished Van De Walle's dreams that day.
Leo's next chance to play spoiler was in Seoul. He faced Stephane Traineau, then current World Champion and #1 seed. In under a minute he beat Traineau decisively with his Soto Maki Komi. I wasn't there, but I don't have to rely on memory. It's captured for posterity on film and you can see the video. I love Neil Adams commentary BEFORE the throw. Neil remembers 1984 the way I do. Here is the link to the match.
Another great first round moment in USA Judo Olympic history came in 2008. Taraje Williams Murray fighting a brilliant tactical fight against Hiraoka in Beijing. Hiraoka was viewed as one of the top gold medal prospects.