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With the possible exception of athletics, wrestling is recognised as the world’s oldest competitive sport. Indeed cave drawings of wrestlers have been found dating as far back as 3000 BC. The sport was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 708 BC, shortly after the Games' recorded history began.
In 1904, Olympic officials added freestyle wrestling, commonly known as "catch as catch can", to the programme. This style had far less history and tradition than Greco-Roman but did possess great popularity, having developed into a form of professional entertainment performed at fairs and festivals across Great Britain and the United States.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, the wrestlers use only their arms and upper bodies to attack, and can only hold those same parts of their opponents. As the name suggests, freestyle is a much more open form in which wrestlers also use their legs and may hold opponents above or below the waist.
The 1900 Games were the only ones where wrestling was not present in any shape or form. Freestyle wrestling first appeared on the Olympic programme at the 1904 Games in St Louis. It was not included in the 1912 Games, but since the 1920 Games in Antwerp, it has been present at every edition of the Games.
At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the Greco-Roman wrestling programme was modified. Only eight weight categories are now represented in each style, as opposed to the 10 that had been included since the 1972 Games in Munich. The reduction in the number of categories from 10 to seven in freestyle wrestling allowed for the introduction of women’s wrestling in 2004, at the Athens Games, where there were four women’s events on the programme.
The Japanese women won medals in each category, while the USA and France won two medals each. The first medal was won by Ukraine’s Irini Merlini, who dominated her four opponents in the 48kg category and went on to win the final by tie-break.