BEIJING (Reuters) - Japan pulled off one of the biggest shocks of the Beijing Olympics by upsetting unbeaten United States 3-1 to claim the softball gold medal on Thursday while sending the sport to a dramatic exit from the Summer Games.
After three consecutive gold medals the Americans saw their reign come to a stunning end on the same day softball was officially dropped from the Olympics.
"The reality is Japan was the better team tonight," said U.S. coach Mike Candrea. "It's obviously tough to handle the disappointments but that's athletics.
"We've all felt the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
"But like I told the girls there are going to be more things in their lives that are more tragic than tonight."
Candrea's words offered little comfort on a night of mixed emotions at Fengtai Field, which played host to both a celebration and a funeral.
As the Japanese team stepped forward to claim their gold medals, the party was tinged by sadness as weeping players were struck with the realization it was the last time softball would be played at the Olympics.
But as the Japanese flag was raised and the national anthem played, the sport's uncertain future was -- for a moment -- pushed into the background.
"This is our dream come true," said Japan coach Haruka Saito. "I had a silver as a player but I wanted the team to have a gold medal and we did.
"I had this feeling we were ready to do it and we it did together."
Since softball was introduced in 1996 at the Atlanta Games, the Americans had ruled supreme over the Olympic diamond, no other country having set foot on the top perch of the podium.
The U.S. roared into Thursday's gold medal game unbeaten in 22 Olympic contests, a streak of dominance stretching all the way back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Eager to exit with a fourth gold, the U.S. steamrolled through the preliminary round with eight wins, including two over Japan.
But led by pitcher Yukiko Ueno, the Asians would have their revenge.
The workhorse of the Japan pitching staff, Ueno was back on the rubber after tossing a combined 21 innings -- or the equivalent of three regulation games -- against the U.S. and bronze medalist Australia on Wednesday just to help get her team into the final.
The 26-year-old had enough magic left in her weary right arm to defuse a potent American club that had whacked an Olympic record 13 home runs in the preliminary round.
Crystl Bustos, who had tagged Ueno for a three-run homer in a 4-1 win over Japan on Wednesday, connected again on a solo shot to trim the Japan lead to 2-1.
Editing by Steve Ginsburg