Kayla Harrison became the first US Olympic judo champion on Thursday as Tagir Khaibulaev won gold in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Harrison beat home favorite Gemma Gibbons in the women’s under-78kg final to eclipse the achievement of her coach Jimmy Pedro, a bronze medalist at both the 1996 and 2004 Games.
In so doing, she broke British hearts, but Gibbons’s run to the final had been as unexpected as it was celebrated by a raucous home crowd.
Putin’s appearance had been eagerly anticipated alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sat in the VIP area with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Like Putin, Hague has practiced judo and both he and the Russian president were seen explaining the sport’s intricacies to Cameron.
Having the two heads of state in attendance seemed to inspire their athletes, with Russian Khaibulaev going one better than Gibbons.
He won the men’s under-100kg division by beating reigning champion Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia in the final with a stunning seoi-nage (shoulder throw).
That took Russia’s tally to three gold medals in the judo competition and they were set to top the table after yesterday’s final heavyweight categories.
It was not a great day for other favorites as world No. 1 Maxim Rakov of Kazakhstan lost in the first round, while Japanese third seed Takamasa Anai was beaten in the second round.
German Dimitri Peters came through to win a surprise bronze medal alongside Henk Grol of the Netherlands, the second seed.
The women’s category went more to form, with the exception of Gibbons, the world No. 42.
Gibbons only moved up to under-78kg this year, after missing out on selection at under-70kg to Sally Conway, and also had to overcome shoulder surgery this year.
She beat world champion Audrey Tcheumeo in the semi-final.
However, Harrison proved a bridge too far, although that did not stop an enthusiastic Cameron congratulating Gibbons after the final.
She said she had been spurned on by a partisan home crowd, a factor that concerned Harrison ahead of the final.
“Gemma came out today and she fought fierce. To be honest, I was nervous to be fighting a British fighter with that crowd, but I knew it was my day and I’ve been training my whole life for this, I knew if I would lose, she would have to take it from me,” Harrison said.
France’s Tcheumeo fought back to take bronze alongside world No. 1 Mayra Aguilar of Brazil.