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Teddy Riner has put together one of the most outstanding career records ever seen in men’s judo, with eight world titles to his name by 2017 and two Olympic gold medals, won at London 2012 and Rio 2016. A bronze medallist also at Beijing 2008, the Frenchman is intent on continuing his reign at Tokyo 2020 and becoming the greatest judoka of all time.
Born in Abymes in Guadeloupe on 7 April 1989, Riner moved to the Paris region with his family when he was still a baby and took up judo at the age of six. On his inexorable rise to the top he developed the kind of agility and speed of movement rarely seen in a heavyweight judoka. A European junior champion in 2006, Riner became the youngest ever senior world champion in Rio de Janeiro the following year, beating Sydney 2000 gold medallist Kosei Inoue of Japan in the final.
He followed up by landing the world open title in Levallois in 2008. Still only 19, he was the favourite for the gold medal at the Beijing Games but lost in the third round to Abdullo Tangriev of Uzbekistan. After fighting his way through the repechage rounds he eventually won bronze. Further world heavyweight titles followed in Rotterdam in 2009 and Tokyo in 2010, though in the latter of those competitions he lost the final of the open-weight class on a golden score to Japan’s Daiki Kamikawa.
Tangriev and Kamikawa remain the only men to have beaten the Frenchman at senior level. Unbeaten since that defeat to the Japanese, Riner had won 98 international bouts in a row by the time he walked away with gold at Rio 2016.
Having claimed what was already a record fifth world heavyweight title in Paris the previous August, Riner was a firm favourite to win Olympic heavyweight judo gold when he stepped onto the mat at London 2012.
Inspired by the white-hot atmosphere in London’s ExCeL Centre and cheered on by his army of fans, the French giant picked off his rivals, who incurred penalty after penalty for their inability to attack their formidable foe. After cruising through to the final, he beat Russia’s Alexander Mikhaylin by waza-ari to secure the one major title missing from his career résumé.
He continued his domination of the global scene after London 2012, beating Brazil’s Rafael Silva to win a sixth heavyweight world crown in Rio de Janeiro in August 2013, and then adding a seventh a year later in Chelyabinsk (RUS), where he saw off Japan’s Ryu Shichinohe to win gold. An eighth then came his way in Astana (KAZ) in August 2015, with yuko and then waza-ari giving him victory over Shichinohe once more.
That eighth world title made Riner the most successful judoka of all time – male or female – an achievement made all the more notable by the fact that he had suffered a number of injuries between the London and Rio Games, with his shoulder causing him particular problems.
Riner’s first appearance at Rio 2016 came at the Opening Ceremony, where he carried the French flag at the head of his country’s delegation. “I feel fortunate, proud and honoured to have rubbed shoulders with these great champions, with these big-hearted people, and to have had the honour of carrying the flag,” she said afterwards.
Like his fellow compatriots, the judoka David Douillet at Sydney 2000 and the sprinter Marie-José Pérec at Atlanta 1996, Riner would prove to be a golden flagbearer. As has so often been the case since he landed his maiden world title in Rio in 2007, the Frenchman was in a class of his own.
The only mishaps the Frenchman suffered in his near-flawless march to gold were a broken nail in the quarter-finals and a finger in the eye in the semis. Waiting for him in the final was Japan’s Hisayoshi Harasawa, whose hopes of ending Riner’s long undefeated record ended when the defending champion prevailed on a lower penalty count. In winning his second straight gold, Riner joined the select band of judokas to have collected three Olympic medals.
“I’m so pleased. It’s great to be rewarded for my hard work,” said Riner after clinching his second Olympic title. “I’ve had a tough four years with injuries and self-doubt and yet here I am. I’m happy with how it’s gone.”
Arguably France’s most popular sportsman, he has now set his sights on continuing his career at least to Tokyo 2020, where he will attempt to win a third straight Olympic gold. In the meantime, he will aim to maintain his staggering winning run and to keep the world crowns coming.
“I just don’t want to leave anything for my opponents,” he said, underlining his intention to become the greatest athlete his sport has ever seen. “Why should I do want to do that when I’m at the peak of my powers?”