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23 Aug 2004
Athens 2004

Mighty Merleni grabs a place in the history books

Athens 2004 saw women's wrestling included on the Olympic programme for the first time, with competition in four weight categories. And the honour of becoming the first ever female Olympic wrestler to win gold went to the diminutive Ukrainian athlete Irini Merleni in the flyweight.

Merleni was just 1.50 metres tall, but she was a hugely skilful and experienced athlete. A world champion three times over, and she arrived in Athens as the overwhelming favourite But would she now be able to cope with the weight of history on her shoulders?

In the preliminary round Merleni looked to in a different league from her opponents, dispatching them one by one with impressive skill and determination. Over the course of less than five minutes of competitive action, she won her first three bouts by a cumulative score of 31 points to nil.

The semi-final pitted her against Patricia Miranda of the USA, who was clearly represented a step up in class compared to her previous adversaries. The pair had met the previous year at the 2003 World Championships, and it had produced a very close contest, with Merleni only winning 5-4. This time, with Miranda not quite at her best, it was very different, as Merleni romped to a 9-0 victory.

That meant she had reached the final without having to face a real test. That was about to change, with a bout against the Japanese wrestler Chiharu Icho, herself a reigning world champion who had come down from a higher weight category to compete in Athens.

It was a tough and gruelling battle that went the distance. Icho opened a 2-1 lead before Merleni levelled the contest with two minutes remaining. That was the end of the scoring, with the decision was then in the hands of the judges. Their vote went to Merleni, who held her head in her hands and screamed in joy as became the first female Olympic wrestling champion in history.

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