The judoka defeated Matteo Marconcini of Italy to claim bronze, making history in the process, as Gruffudd Owen reports
He entered the Olympics as one of the UAE’s best hopes of reaching the podium.
And on Tuesday, the judoka Sergiu Toma exited the Rio dojo having done just that.
The 29-year-old fought his way into Emirati folklore at the Carioca Arena 2 in the Barra Olympic Park by becoming only the second athlete representing the UAE to win an Olympic medal, beating Italy’s Matteo Marconcini to bronze in the 81kg division.
A gruelling day of grappling that culminated in glory as the clocks were striking midnight back in Dubai began for the 29-year-old against Sven Maresch at the round of 32 stage.
After convincingly dispatching the German, a victory against home favourite Victor Penalber followed, before a superb takedown of the reigning world champion Takanori Nagase set up a semi-final with the powerful Khasan Khalmurzaev.
This bout against the peerless Russian proved to be a step too far for Toma, succumbing to an ippon in added time after the pair had scored equally in the opening five minutes.
Despite this setback, a shot at bronze still beckoned for the Moldovan-born judoka; adhering with great effect to the age-old maxim of learning from one’s mistakes, he landed his own ippon on his Italian opponent, ending the tie and kick-starting the celebrations for Toma and his team.
"I am very happy. I want to say 'thank you' to all the people who supported me, people from my country, Moldova, and the people from the UAE," he tearfully said in the aftermath of his win.
"Doing judo in Moldova is not as possible as in the UAE. And the career of an athlete is short. In the UAE they gave me the chance to represent them, they always believed in me."
Indeed, Toma’s triumph vindicates his decision three years ago to switch allegiances to the UAE from his homeland. After falling in the second round at Beijing in 2008 and getting eliminated a stage later at London 2012 while competing under the Moldovan banner, he has risen to ninth in the world in a highly competitive weight class since relocating to his adoptive country.
I am very happy. I want to say 'thank you' to all the people who supported me, people from my country, Moldova, and the people from the UAE
And it is hoped that his landmark achievement in Rio can further boost the profile of martial arts in the Gulf, with a number of clubs specialising in various combat sports already active in the region.
In the meantime, however, Toma will cherish his special moment and will no doubt be cheering on from the stands when his fellow Moldovan-Emirati judoka Ivan Remarenco begins his quest for a medal in the 100kg weight division on Thursday.
Twelve years have passed since His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum made history at the 2004 Games in Athens by winning gold in the men’s double trap shooting event.
Toma’s feat in the dojo on Tuesday means he now joins the esteemed company of His Highness in the pantheon of the great Emirati Olympians.
Ivan Remarenco competes in the men’s judo 100 kg class on Thursday, August 11, beginning his campaign against Algeria’s Lyes Bouyacoub at 9:21pm (UAE time)