Athletics’ Tomoki Sato Competes with Rival, Spectacularly Claiming Double Paralympic Gold
On the 29th, a leading Japanese athlete carved his name in history at the National Stadium. Tomoki Sato won his second gold medal of these Paralympic Games. He did not improve on his own world record, but he did set new records for the Games (Paralympic records) in both of his events. Behind this outstanding performance was competition with a rival who came to Japan with the best results in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An intense faceoff with his rival
It was a soul-stirring race, with the winner unclear until the end. The finals for the athletics 400m (T52) were held on the 27th. Sato, the silver medalist at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games five years ago, competed with Rio gold medalist Raymond Martin (United States) to win his first gold medal of Tokyo 2020.
On the day, Sato’s face when he entered the track was stiff with tension. He must have felt the heavy pressure of the expectations placed on him as the implicit gold medal contender for the Japanese team.
“World-record holder Tomoki Sato.” Sato struck a powerful, triumphant pose at the starting line when the announcement introducing the athletes played. The moment changed the nervousness inside Sato to strength.
Although he fumbled in the qualifying round in the morning, Sato’s push off was perfect. He assumed such a drive that he seemed almost like a different person than he was five years ago in Rio.
Martin, whose advantage is the speed of his push off, led as usual in the beginning. Sato gained on him steadily with his distinctive ability to improve in the middle of the race. Sato shot into the lead on the approach to the home straight in the 2019 World Championships, but this time Martin did not stop accelerating. Sato overtook his opponent in the remaining 20 meters, winning the Paralympic title he sought for five years. With Sato at 55.39 seconds and Martin at 55.59 seconds, the two athletes left behind an excellent performance approaching the world record (55.13 seconds).
The thrilling 400m final unfolded with no clear winner until the end.
photo by Takashi Okui
Martin can be called the most significant figure in Sato’s competitive life.
Before the Paralympic Games, Sato said, “The most frustrating thing up to now was losing to Martin in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. The happiest thing up to now was winning against him in the World Championships. But just being world champion won’t cut it. I have to pay back my Paralympic debt at the Paralympic Games.” Given these words, it is no surprise that Sato was almost abnormally fixated on this competition.
Sato, who finally beat Martin to score the Paralympic title, was at a loss for words after the race and mentioned some particular thoughts regarding his rival:
“We first competed against each other in a race at the 2015 World Championships. Martin didn’t enter the 400m at the time, so the result was that I won gold. Martin dominated over me in the 1500m race, and I was filled with a sense of helplessness. Then, the next year, I participated in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Because he defeated me there, too, I was able to pay him back in Tokyo 2020 and establish the new goal of the world record. I’m extremely grateful to Mr. Martin.”
Meanwhile, Martin also seemed satisfied, saying, “The result of us competing was that we both gave a good performance. We had the opposite results as we did in Rio, but I feel very good. We both had nearly the best race of our lives.”
The second gold medal seized through devotion to competition
Two days after that race, on the 29th, Sato entered the track for the finals of the Men’s 1500m (T52). Arriving at the starting line in Lane 1, he wore a tense expression while he waited for the race to begin. Next to him in Lane 2 was Martin, the rival he battled in the 400m.
With a tight look on his face, Sato closed his fist and pumped it when the camera turned toward him, giving spectators a sense of his fighting spirit for this race.
The race developed unexpectedly from the start. Sato had planned to stick behind Martin, but Martin did not come out ahead. Sato therefore broke out in front just about before hitting the first corner. Martin followed close behind. Around one-and-a-quarter laps, Sato and Martin gradually began to put distance between themselves and Hirokazu Ueyonabaru, who trailed them in third. The fight for the gold medal already narrowed down to Sato and Martin.
The situation did not change in the remaining lap, either. Sato spurted forward again and again, and Martin snapped at his heels, but Sato shook off Martin on the last straight to finish the race. Sato gave a big fist pump.
Sato followed up the 400m with another win in the 1500m, achieving two gold medals.
photo by Jun Tsukida
Holding the gold medal to his chest, Sato proudly said, “In Rio I got two silver medals. That’s why I can’t say I’ve beaten Martin unless I have two gold medals. I’m filled with emotion at winning the two gold medals.”
The winner shines brighter when the vanquished opponent is outstanding. Such was the real pleasure of the competition.
(From left) Martin, Sato, and Ueyonabaru holding their medals at the 400m award ceremony
photo by Takashi Okui
text by TEAM A
key visual by Jun Tsukida