The New York Daily News recently ran a piece about a 74-year-old Brooklyn woman who was stripped of her first place medal 50 years ago. The gold was taken away from Rena (Rusty) Kanokogi after judges realized she was a woman competing against men.
On Friday, August 21st, organizers tried to right that wrong. Finally getting the gold was a sweet moment for Kanokogi, who became a pioneer for her sport – and a champion for equal rights – after her 1959 victory turned sour because she was the wrong gender.
Kanokogi is now frail, battling cancer, and walks with a cane. But she vividly recalls the moment she took on her opponent in the New York State YMCA judo championships. She was an alternate, and had to step in when a male team member was injured.
Although women were not explicitly barred from the YMCA contests, no female had ever tried to take part. Because her hair was as short as a boy’s and she had an athletic build and tape around her breasts, Kanokogi’s gender wasn’t questioned until she won her fight – and her team won the contest.
She was pulled aside and forced to admit she was a woman or else her teammates would have been stripped of the title.
Fifty years after the fact, the New York State YMCA has given her the medal to make amends, and to honor a lifetime of work on behalf of women and sports. After losing the medal, Kanokogi went on to fund the first female judo world championships and worked to get women’s judo into the 1988 Olympics.
Kanokogi’s Career Highlights Include:
- Holds a seventh-degree black belt in judo, making her the highest-ranking American woman in the sport of judo
- Received the honor of World Pioneer of Women’s Judo, which was given to her by the International Judo Federation (IJF) Congress in Japan, which has representatives from 103 countries
- In 2007, the USA Judo Referee Commission voted unanimously to award the John Osako Award for excellence in refereeing to Kanokogi.
- Was the NBC sport expert commentator at the 2004 Olympic Games for judo.
- A former member of the Women’s Sports Foundation Board of Trustees (1996-2001)
- Current chair of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame Alumnae Association
- Received the 1991 Women’s Sports Foundation President’s Award.
As she was presented the medal she once had to forfeit, Kanokogi said: “This one’s even better.”