Kaori Icho

Week 159 (22 – 28 October 2016)

It has been a remarkable year for Japanese wrestler Kaori Icho: a fact which was recognised this week when she received the prestigious People's Honour Award from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe for her incredible contribution to Japanese sport.

The exclusive award is given to those who have "sparked excitement and encouragement in society through an outstanding achievement in cultural endeavours in sport, music and film, among others."

The four-time Olympic champion and ten-time world champion received a certificate, plaque and belt at a ceremony held to promote the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which was attended by IOC President Thomas Bach.

In response to winning the award, Icho demonstrated the humility that has won her millions of fans across Japan, describing the prestigious honour as a "sobering moment."

Icho, 32, made Olympic history at Rio 2016, becoming the first female Olympian to win an individual event at four consecutive Games by taking gold in the 58kg category. Icho had won gold at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 but suffered her first defeat in 13 years in January before bouncing back in style in Rio to secure gold with a two-point score with just seconds remaining.

Icho is only the 23rd individual to win the award since its inauguration in 1977, leaving her in the esteemed company of composers, film directors and other athletes. She joins Rio 2016 wrestling teammate Saori Yoshida, who was awarded the honour after her third gold, at London 2012, as well as other gold medal-winning athletes Naoko Takahashi, the Sydney 2000 Games marathon winner, and Yasuhiro Yamashita, the Los Angeles 1984 judo champion.

Outside of wrestling, Icho is an advocate of traditional Japanese culture, and she intends to use her new award for promotional purposes, noting, "The belt has a lot of yellow in it, and I'm looking forward to deciding which kimono I can wear it with. I want to wear it around the world with the pride of a Japanese."

Icho's hard work, dedication and immense skill are an inspiration to the people of Japan. At the ceremony, Prime Minister Abe offered the highest praise to Icho, saying, "You gave great excitement and courage to the people of Japan as well as glimmering hope to the world by achieving such a world-class feat."

Kaori Icho may not be as well-known as other athletes who have won individual gold medals at four consecutive Olympic Games, such as Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis, but she is a phenomenal athlete and a cultural icon in Japan. Her sporting prowess has given her a platform and, when she speaks, people listen.

Photo: Philbert Ono