There’s no question Ryoko Tani (nee Tamura) is the greatest female judoka ever. But is she the greatest judoka of all time? Some would argue that based on results alone, France’s Teddy Riner is greater. Well, let’s look at the results.
Firstly, let’s look at the Olympics. From this standpoint, the greatest is Tadahiro Nomura, who has three Olympic gold medals. So far, nobody has been able to equal that though quite a few have managed to get two golds. Tani has done it and so has Riner. Of course, Riner’s career is not over yet and might still get another gold in Paris 2024. But as of now, these two are equal, same for Shohei Ono who might take a third one in Paris as well.
Next, let’s look at the World Championships. On the surface, it’s Riner hands down because he has 10 World titles while Tani has seven. But a closer analysis reveals that when it comes to the World Championships, the conclusion has to be more nuanced.
Whereas with the Olympics, it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, with the World’s it isn’t. For example, in 2017 Riner got a gold medal for the Open weight and another gold medal for the +100kg. That means he got a chance to get gold twice in one year. Tani never had such an opportunity.
Also, in 2008, an Olympic year, Riner won a World Open weight gold. Normally, world championships are not held during Olympic years and Tani never got a chance to win a world title during any of her Olympic years.
So, Riner clearly had an advantage in terms of opportunities to win gold medals due to the existence of Open weight category.
Also, it must be noted that Riner competed in an era where World Championships are held every year. During Tani’s time, World Championships were held once every two years. So, again, in terms of winning World golds, Riner had many more chances.
From 1991 to 2007 – a period of 16 years – there were only nine World Championships and Tani won seven of them. In contrast, from 2007 to 2021 – a period of 14 years – there were 11 (non-Open Weight) World Championships and Riner won eight of them.
By the time Riner completes his 16th year since his first World’s, he would have had 13 World gold opportunities. Tani had only nine such opportunities over the same length of time. So, it’s really not comparing apples to apples. Riner simply had more opportunities to win a World gold than Tani.
Although it’s debatable whether Tani would have won more gold medals had there been a World Championship held every year (instead of every two years) during her era, it’s worth mentioning that from 1992 to 2008, she only lost a total of three times, and all of them were in the Olympics (1992, 1996 and 2008).
As mentioned earlier, if Riner wins gold in Paris 2024, it completely settles the question of who is the greatest judoka of all time. But comparing World titles is not very fair because of the number of opportunities were simply far greater for Riner than for Tani.