Women Trailblazers – Rio Flashback

When stories are told of the badminton competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the heroics of some fearless women winning historic gold medals for their respective countries – Japan and Spain – must be to the fore.

Women’s doubles saw two of the smallest athletes standing tallest as Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi showed great character to give Japan its first Olympic gold medal in the sport. Amid a tense third game, the pair reeled off five straight points to thwart the imposing duo of Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl 18-21 21-9 21-19. In doing so, they denied their Danish rivals the distinct honour of becoming the first non-Asian winners of this category.

Instead, it was the Land of the Rising Sun whose name would be etched in the annals of Olympic badminton. The magnitude of the moment impacted 24-year-old Matsutomo and her 26-year-old partner, both of whom were visibly emotional as their national anthem played at the medal ceremony.

The vanquished Kamilla Rytter Juhl (right) congratulates winner Misaki Matsutomo after the women’s doubles final.

“The Olympics were our biggest goal and it’s very emotional to realise our dream has come true,” said Takahashi.

“It was the first time our anthem was heard in an Olympic badminton venue and that was wonderful.”

Afterwards, Rytter Juhl reflected positively on the draining campaign to silver.

“It was an amazing final. It had everything,” she said. “If anyone had said we would be so close to winning the gold and that we would play our best match ever in an Olympic final, I would take that. Almost all our tears are because we are proud. Only one out of 100 is because we are disappointed.”

Meanwhile, Jung Kyung Eun and Shin Seung Chan beat Tang Yuanting and Yu Yang for the bronze medal. The Koreans won 21-8 21-17. It was Korea’s only medal in badminton.

Europe’s doubles disappointment was transformed to joy a day later as a lethal Spanish left-hander stormed to women’s singles glory.

Carolina Marin had been the talk of the town since her sensational World Championships victory in 2014 and her retention of that crown in 2015. Her fearless destruction of all-comers – plus her trademark iron will – ranked her among the favourites for the signature tournament. By the time she arrived in Rio, she was world No.1 though her only major boast for that season was the European crown.

Tears of joy for Marin.

The Huelva native quickly dispelled any doubts about her form, ploughing through the field and vanquishing defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui in the semifinals; the Chinese star retiring due to a knee injury.

Only the lanky Pusarla V. Sindhu stood between Marin and the top of the podium. Despite a brief stutter in the first game of the final, the Spaniard duly conquered her Indian opponent 19-21 21-12 21-15 in 80 minutes, laying claim to an enviable trifecta of accolades: the world No.1 ranking, back-to-back World Championships and the coveted Olympic gold medal.

Her triumph also gave Europe its first taste of women’s singles glory, matching the men’s singles gold won by Denmark’s Poul-Erik Høyer (now BWF President) in Atlanta 1996.

“My dream has come true but there’s been a lot of work behind this medal,” declared the then 23-year-old with her latest hardware dangling from her neck.

“It has been tough training. In every session, I thought about the (gold) medal and how I wanted to fight for it. I knew I would have to give everything – and I did. I am very happy.”

South America’s first Olympic Games produced the ultimate image – a Latina queen on badminton’s biggest stage.

It was also a monumental occasion for Indian sport as Pusarla became the first woman from her country to win an Olympic silver medal and, despite losing the final, she was pleased overall.

“I am almost speechless because I didn’t expect I would play this brilliantly. My ultimate aim was to get a medal. It’s been a wonderful week for me,” she said.

Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara took bronze after Li’s injury prevented her from contesting their match for third place. The results doomed China to its first Olympic shut-out in women’s singles and doubles, having captured gold in both categories at every Olympic Games since 2000, and all five golds at the London 2012 Olympic Games.