Brazilian Sarah Menezes got off to a shaky start at the Olympics on Saturday, squeaking through her preliminary rounds by the smallest possible margin. But by the end of her final fight of the women's 48-kilogram category, Menezes became the first Brazilian woman to win an Olympic judo gold. Pitted against defending champion Alina Dumitru in a cagey final, Menezes often kept her guard up like a boxer avoiding jabs.
In the last minutes of the match, she managed to throw Dumitru twice for a convincing win.
"I'm exceedingly happy," Menezes said afterwards. "I hoped and prayed for this medal and I got it at 22."
In the men's 60-kilogram division, Russian Arsen Galstyan surprised spectators and opponents alike when he took the gold.
Galstyan defeated the category's two favourites to win the medal: top-ranked Uzbeki fighter Rishod Sobirov in the semifinal, and Japanese judoka Hiroaki Hiroaka in the final.
It took less than a minute for Galstyan, 23, to score a match-ending ippon over Hiroaka. It was the first Olympic medal for the Russian, who came third at the world championships. The bronze medals were won by Sobirov and Felipe Kitadai of Brazil.
It was the first gold medal for Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. "Russia has waited (for this) for a long time," Galstyan said. "I feel very happy I was able to win it."
The women's bronze medals went to Hungarian Eva Csernoviczki and Charline van Snick of Belgium. For Csernoviczki, the medal came despite being strangled into unconsciousness in the fourth round.
"I still can't believe I made it," she said. "I am happy that for the first time, I could beat the world No. 1," she said, referring to her win over top-ranked Tomoko Fukumi in the bronze medal match.
For Fukumi and her team, it was a disappointing day for the nation that invented judo and aspires only to gold.
Hiroaka had looked in top form on Saturday and was frequently the aggressor in his matches — until he got thrown by Galstyan. "I'm not satisfied with the colour of my medal, but I did the best I could," he said.
Still, mere judo skills didn't explain everyone's success on Saturday.
Before each match, Brazilian Kitadai touched the tatami before touching his judo uniform. He said he always thinks of the five rings when he dreams of the Olympics. "I touch the rings (on the mat) as if to touch my dream with my hand," he said. "It isn't just technique that wins judo."