As part of my job, I spend a large amount of weekends at high school and university judo tournaments, and while it was an exhilarating experience at the beginning, you soon find that the routine grind is not only stressful, but monotonous at times. From the lousy hotels, to seeing the same obnoxious coaches and abusive parents week in and week out, sometimes I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. And, without a doubt, one of the most stressful things about going to so many tournaments is seeing the pressure put on young athletes and the weight that they must carry on their shoulders at such a young age. There have been countless times I have listened to people in the stands talking about the “next olympic champion”, only to watch that player fizzle out in the years following. I honestly can’t think of many activities that could possibly be more physically and mentally draining than elite Japanese judo. It is truly a one of a kind. A part of me always wants to jump in and save these poor kids from it all. This all brings me to the athlete I want to focus on today, the former Junior World Champion, Sho Tateyama.
If you have never heard of him, you wouldn’t be alone. He hasn’t featured on the world stage all that often, and yet, he has been consistently one of the best judoka on the planet since he was a high school student. In fact, if you take a quick look at his palmares, you’d think he was destined to be the next Koga or Nomura. Have a look at some of his accomplishments:
2011 – All-Japan U20 Champion
2011 – Junior World Champion
2012 – Russian Junior International Champion
2012 – German Junior International Champion
2013 – Belgium Senior International runner-up
2013 – Junior World Championships runner-up
2014 – Ulaanbataar Grand Prix 3rd place
2015 – All-Japan Weight Class Championships 3rd place
2016 – Grand Slam Tyumen 3rd place
2016 – All-Japan Businessman’s Championships 3rd place
The problem for Tateyama unfortunately, is that he competes in the -66kg category. When he was first coming onto the scene as a high school student, his division was being dominated by Masashi Ebinuma, 3x world champion, who dethroned another world champion, the one-hit wonder, Junpei Morishita. In 2011, Tateyama was the talk of the town, and most felt he would be the natural heir to Ebinuma’s throne. His fighting spirit and attack-to-the-very-end style he possesses were not only crowd pleasers, but made him popular amongst the Japanese coaches as well. His consistency landed him on the podium in nearly every tournament he entered from 2011-2014. All seemed to be going as planned. He was (and still is) right on par with his contemporaries, Kengo Takaichi and Tomofumi Takajo.
But then something called Hifumi Abe happened. At only 17 years of age, Abe quickly rose to prominence, seemingly skipping his junior career and jumping straight into the senior ranks. In the years following the London Olympics in 2012, no single judoka matched Abe in terms of fanfare and TV airtime. At the same time that Ebinuma was still at the pinnacle of his career, Joshi Maruyama, Japan’s most epic thrower in the category since Yukimasa Nakamura, also came onto the scene (Matt D’aquino does a great analysis of Maruyama, here).
In an instant, Tateyama went from the headlining act, to backup dancer. At only 23 years of age, there is still plenty of time for him to turn the tide back in his favor, but if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t count on it. Judo is a brutal sport physically and also mentally. It brings to light how unfair life can be sometimes. Tateyama, like countless others before him, would probably be competing for gold medals at all the grand slam tournaments and world and olympic championships if the flag he wore on his lapel were any other flag than the Japanese one. But, such is life, and such is a sport where there can be only 1 winner. Some of the greatest judoka on the planet are ones you have never heard of.