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On a day when two of Korea’s “sure bets” for Olympic medals ― one in shooting, one in badminton ― failed to deliver, Lee Won-hee captured gold in spectacular fashion, giving Korea its first-ever gold medal in the judo under-73 kilogram class.
It was Korea’s eighth judo Olympic gold since the nation won its first at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Lee, who had established a record 48 consecutive wins in domestic and international competitions as well as winning the 2003 World Judo Championships in Osaka, Japan, was favored for gold ― but that did not diminish the drama of his final match.
His second match indicated the great things to come. Lee was drawn against James Pedro of the U.S., bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the very man who halted Lee’s 48-match streak of consecutive wins last year at the Korea Open. Lee proved that he had learned from his defeat last year, winning with an Ippon (one point) score, the maximum score possible, granted for a clean throw. Pedro took the bronze.
Lee ― nicknamed “Mr. Ippon” here, as he wins the majority of his fights with an Ippon score ― finished all but his first opponent with Ippons.
His final match against Vitaliy Makarow of Russia, winner of the 2001 World Judo Championship was vintage Lee. The Korean held the lead over Makarow in points for several techniques; then, with nine seconds remaining, Lee made the decisive move. As Makarow resisted a throw and the two men grappled for advantage, Lee, moving with astonishing speed, converted from his attempted throw to a clean leg-hook, felling the Russian.
On his knees after the spectacular throw, Lee raised his hands skyward, as if in thanks to the judo gods, before embracing his coach and exulting.
His victory washed away memories of the 2000 Sydney Games, when South Korea’s judo team failed to win a gold. Lee can expect a total of 195 million won ($168,000) in rewards.
North Korea’s diminutive Kye Sun-hui, winner of the 2003 World Judo Championship, gold medalist in Atlanta and the bronze winner in Sydney, was less lucky: She clinched a silver in the women’s under 57 kilogram class, losing to Germany’s Yvonne Boenisch in the final. Kye is the first person to win an Olympic medal in three different weight classes.

by Brian Lee
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