Breaking the Knee

The story of a man who once held his hand to the Olympic fire


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

By the time you read this the Tokyo Olympics will have started, so the prediction contained here as to who will light the cauldron — one of the greatest honours an Olympian can have — will look either brilliantly prescient or woefully off-beam. My risible betting history would suggest that the safe money is very much on the latter, but I think, and certainly hope, that the task will have fallen to Shun Fujimoto.

Fujimoto was part of the Japanese gymnastics squad which travelled to Montreal in 1976 with a reputation to protect. The men had won the team all-round event for the last four Games, with the USSR finishing second on each occasion. “We were anxious,” Fujimoto said. “We knew that we couldn’t break the legacy of our predecessors. That pressure was heavy.”

But now it’s the Soviets who are ahead with more than half the competition gone. Fujimoto performs his floor routine, ending with a spectacular flying somersault. He lands hard: too hard, and slightly off-balance to boot. He hears a crack, feels pain sharp and bright in his leg.

He’s broken his kneecap.

Insane though it sounds, he can pass it off as a twinge and keep going

He limps back to the seating area, trying to shut out the agony so he can think. What to do? If this was the individual competition he could just withdraw. But his team-mates are relying on him. Four years of training just for this moment: men with whom he spends each and every day, men he knows better than almost anyone else in the world. He can’t let them down.

So again the question: what to do? He can’t tell the team doctor, who will demand that he goes to hospital and has the fracture reset. He can’t tell his team-mates for fear that it will break their concentration and diminish their performances. There’s only one thing he can do, insane though it sounds. He can pass it off as a twinge and keep going. So that’s exactly what he does.

Next up is the pommel horse. This is possible, even with a broken kneecap. His legs will be straight pretty much throughout the routine, and even the landing is only a small leap from the height of a kitchen table. He can do this. He has to do this: the pommel horse is the Japanese team’s weakest discipline, and if they lose touch here the gold goes with it.

Fujimoto gets up onto the pommel horse and does his stuff: a dizzyingly slick whirl of arms and body, twisting himself with split-second precision into pretzel shapes and out of them again, talcum powder coming off his hands in puffs as he slaps them against the leather.
It’s good. It’s more than good. It’s 9.5 points, his highest pommel score ever. Japan are still in this.

And now the rings. Ten feet above ground with a twisting triple somersault to finish. A twisting triple somersault from ten feet. Onto a broken kneecap.

The team manager lifts him up. He grips the rings, feels his shoulders take the strain, pulls himself into a handstand. Swings his body through an entire arc into another handstand. Comes down into a hold, arms parallel to the ground and legs straight out in front of him. Hangs inverted and goes back into a crucifix. Slowly forward and up into another handstand. The strength, the flexibility, the control, the skill to do all this.

Takes a breath. Here goes.

He swings his body once, gathering momentum, and launches into the triple somersault. A flash in his vision of the crowd upside down, another flash of the judges on their sides. Arc lights and the scoreboard as he spins. The ground rushing up to meet him.

He lands. A split second where he’s absorbing several times his own bodyweight, and he knows instantly that it’s not as bad as he feared. It’s worse.

His sole concession to the agony is to lift his leg slightly after landing

His kneecap’s already fractured, but now the impact dislocates it too, tearing bone from ligaments like a wolf ripping at a carcass. The pain is an all-consuming explosion, a river which rushes and spills over every part of him. But he can’t succumb. His sole concession to the agony is to lift his leg slightly after landing, but other than that he holds the position as he’s practised time and again, body straight and arms high, because if he doesn’t he’ll lose marks, and after what seems like aeons but is only actually a few seconds the judges nod and it’s over.

The Japanese finish with 576.85 points, the Soviets with 576.45. Four-tenths of a point: a winning margin of less than one-tenth of one per cent.

They offer Fujimoto whatever assistance he wants to go and collect his gold medal. A wheelchair, crutches, just someone’s shoulder. He turns them all down. He’s played his part in winning gold on a shattered knee and without help: he’ll receive that medal on a shattered knee and without help.

So he walks up to the podium unaided, and stands there with his team-mates, and bows his head when the medal is placed around his neck, and the national anthem plays for him and for the men he would not let down.

He is now 71: a softly-spoken man with a shy smile, ligaments which never properly healed and a knee which still pops out now and then. The Olympic flame burns for all competitors, but for none more fiercely than a man who once held his hand in that fire, and held it, and held it, and found when he finally took it out that what he had forged was solid gold.

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