Figuring large among the six Greco-Roman wrestling gold medallists at Rio 2016 were Cuba’s Mijain Lopez, who won his third straight -120kg title, Russia’s Roman Vlasov, who topped the podium for the second Games in a row, and Davor Stefanek, Serbia’s first Olympic wrestling champion.
The Rio 2016 wrestling competitions saw the introduction of a raft of rule changes designed to produce fast, aggressive action on the mat and higher scoring. As the reaction of the large and enthusiastic crowds at Carioca Arena 2 showed, the modifications proved a success, with the six Greco-Roman wrestling events serving up some excellent entertainment and a surprise or two. The first of them came in the -59kg class, the opening competition of the Games, where Japan’s Shinobu Ota came out of nowhere to beat several medal contenders on his unlikely route to the final, the highlight being his 5-4 defeat of defending champion and seven-time world champion Hamid Soryan of Iran in the preliminary round.
I’m really glad to be an Olympic champion. “There’s a lot of emotion. It’s so hard to explain. It went really fast but I was able to be a stronger athlete and come out on top.Ismael Borrero Molina Cuba
Waiting for him in the final, however, was Cuba’s reigning world champion Ismael Borrero Molina, who was in no mood to let Ota spoil his day. Seizing his first chance to lift up and throw his Japanese opponent to the mat in the first period of the final, Borrero sealed victory with another throw in the second. In running out an 8-0 winner, he gave Cuba a wrestling gold for the seventh successive Games. The bronze medals went to Stig-Andre Berge of Norway and Elmurat Tasmuradov of Uzbekistan.
“I’m really glad to be an Olympic champion,” said Borrero afterwards. “There’s a lot of emotion. It’s so hard to explain.” Reflecting on the gold medal bout, he added: “It went really fast but I was able to be a stronger athlete and come out on top.”
Vlasov strikes again
To create gender parity between the men’s and women’s competitions at Rio 2016, a single weight class was removed from both the men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling programmes and two additional categories added to the women’s programme. As part of the reshuffle, the men’s -74kg competition gained a kilo in weight in Rio.
I have so much to say but I don’t have enough words to say it. Just, I am so happy now.Roman Vlasov Russia
The change made little difference to Russia’s Roman Vlasov. Despite sustaining a cut eyebrow in an early bout, the London 2012 champion made serene progress, comfortably beating China’s Yang Bin in the quarter-finals and Croatia’s Bozo Starcevic in the semis, before outclassing Denmark’s Mark Overgaard Madsen to secure gold for the second Games running.
“I am feeling very well,” said the victorious Vlasov. “It is a pleasure to be here. Not only me but a lot of people tried to get this (medal). And now the dream came true and we are here. There are a lot of emotions. I have so much to say but I don’t have enough words to say it. Just, I am so happy now.” The Republic of Korea’s Kim Hyeonwoo shared the bronze with Saeid Morad Abdvali of Iran.
Lopez enters Olympic history with third title
Day two of the competition saw Cuba’s Mijain Lopez Nunez consolidate his place among the all-time greats of wrestling. In winning his third consecutive -130kg gold, he matched legendary Russian grappler Aleksandr Karelin’s haul of three Olympic titles.
The dance just came naturally to me. Brazil is Brazil, and in Brazil you have to dance!Mijain Lopez Nunez Cuba
In a repeat of the 2015 World Championship final, Lopez faced off for the gold with Riza Kayaalp of Turkey. On that occasion it was the Turk who prevailed. Lopez, who carried the Cuban flag at the Opening Ceremony, was intent on avoiding a repeat, however, and threw his opponent 20 seconds into the bout to earn four technical points. By the end of the first period the gap had grown to five points, with Lopez promptly extending it to six in the second.
With a minute left on the clock, the judge awarded a two-point penalty against Kayaalp after he appeared to strike the Cuban in the face. The resulting eight-point gap would have led to the bout being stopped automatically, but the decision was quickly reversed, cutting short Lopez’s celebrations. With no further scoring, however, he was able to resume them soon enough, drawing wild applause from his fans and the Brazilian crowd with a salsa-style shimmy in the middle of the mat.
After collecting his third consecutive gold, Lopez said: “I’m so proud of reaching the same level of the great Karelin. This is just a tremendous honour. I promised I was going to do it, and I did it. The dance just came naturally to me. Brazil is Brazil, and in Brazil you have to dance!”
In addition to his Olympic hat-trick, Lopez has also won five world championship titles and three silvers, achievement s that have cemented his status as a wrestling and Cuban sporting legend. The bronze medals in the category went to Sabah Shariati of Azerbaijan and Sergey Semenov of Russia.
Chakvetadze takes -85kg gold
In the -85kg final, European Games winner Davit Chakvetadze of Russia trailed world champion Zhan Beleniuk of Ukraine 2-0 in the first period, but rallied in the second to overcome his opponent 9-2 on technical points. Javid Hamzatau from Belarus and German revelation Denis Maksymilian Kudla picked up the bronze medals.
“The first period was a bit tough for me,” acknowledged Chakvetadze afterwards. “But in the second period I was able to concentrate and win. I pulled myself together, focused and finished the match. I am the happiest man on earth. I want to thank everyone who supported me.”
Silver medallist Beleniuk gave his own performance “three out of five”, adding: “In the second half of the final, the fight did not work for me. The opponent was serious and uncomfortable for me. I will have to keep on training if I am going to win next time. We have met five times, and with today’s competition it is 3-2 in his favour.”
Stefanek scores a first for Serbian wrestling
With all the leading contenders falling by the wayside in the earlier rounds, the -66kg final was a battle of the underdogs, as Davor Stepanek of Serbia grappled with Armenia’s Migran Arutyunyan for gold. The Armenian led by a solitary point after the first period, though the Serb levelled the bout at 1-1 in the second. That was the end of the scoring, with Stepanek taking the gold by virtue of being the last man to register a point.
After holding his nerve in a dramatic finish, Stefanek heaped praise on the team around him: “From the first moment I stepped into the competition, I felt I would give all that I have. It’s so special. This is a gold medal for my hometown, Subotica. I would like to thank my coaches, the whole team, my parents, the Olympic Committee and the wrestling federation.”
In winning Serbia’s first-ever Olympic wrestling title, Stefanek also gave his country its maiden gold at Rio 2016 and only its second in Olympic history, after Milica Mandic’s women’s taekwondo win at London 2012.
Speaking after the final, a crestfallen Arutyunyan said: “I am very disappointed. This was everything that I had fought for, for such a long time.” The bronze medals went to Shmagi Bolkvadze of Georgia and Rasul Chunayev of Azerbaijan.
Awesome Aleksanyan powers to gold
In the -98kg category, gold medal favourite and London 2012 bronze medallist Artur Aleksanyan impressed in all his matches, and had little trouble controlling Cuba’s Yasmany Daniel Lugo Cabrera in the final to win 3-0 on technical points. In doing so, he became the first Armenian wrestler to win multiple Olympic medals.
Explaining that he had got stronger since his third-place finish four years ago and had developed his skills, the 24-year-old Aleksanyan said: “I came here for the gold and I’m proud that I got it. Since London, I’ve made the final at three world championships and won twice, so many considered me a favourite coming into this competition. There was a lot of pressure, but I was able to cope with it.” Discussing the challenge posed by his Cuban opponent, he added: “I’ve met him before and knew he was a strong opponent. He’s very good fighting upright and that’s how he usually scores, so I had to be careful. But I followed the advice of my coaches and it worked.”
Lugo was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “Aleksanyan is a world champion so I knew it would be a hard fight. He is a consistent athlete and gets consistent results. But the silver is amazing for me because we’ve been working very hard and the whole team has had great results during the competition.”
Beaten in the quarter-finals, London 2012 -96kg champion Ghasem Rezaei of Iran fought his way through the repackage rounds to win one of the two bronzes on offer, the other going to Turkey’s Conk Led, a semi-final loser to Aleksanyan.