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Wrestling 101: Olympic history

Wrestling 101: Olympic history
Posted at 12:43 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 12:39:12-04

Athens, 1896

With roots in ancient Greece, wrestling, not surprisingly, is featured on the program for the first modern Games in Athens. Only one event - with no weight limit - was contested, and the winner was 5-foot-4 German Carl Schuhmann, a triple gold medalist in gymnastics. The official report described one of Schuhmann's wins as follows: "This contest was a very short one, for the strongly built German, grasping the handsome English-man, who was fully a head taller than he, stoutly round the waist, threw him on the ground in the twinkling of an eye."

St. Louis, 1904

In 1904, the first modern Olympics held on U.S. soil featured seven freestyle wrestling divisions, and no international participants. As a result, Americans claimed every medal awarded: seven gold and 21 overall. Winners included two members of the Brooklyn-based Norwegian Turnverein: Charles Erickson and Bernuff Hansen.

London, 1908

To cover his Olympic expenses, Canadian wrestler Aubert Cote mortgaged his farm in Quebec. In London, he won bronze in freestyle's 54kg (119 lbs) division, and the Canadian Olympic Committee decided to reimburse him. New Jersey native George Mehnert, the gold medalist ahead of Cote, captured a second Olympic gold in Stockholm four years later.

Stockholm, 1912

In a semifinal match in Greco-Roman's 75kg (165.5 lbs) division, Martin Klein, an Estonian representing Russia, and Finland's Alfred Asikainen grappled in the hot sun for 11 hours and 40 minutes - pausing briefly every 30 minutes to refresh - before Klein finally won by pin. Too exhausted to contest the final, Klein took silver. Stockholm's official report attributed the wrestlers' endurance and desire to "the prospect of winning an Olympic gold medal," but also conceded that, "some alteration must be made in the rules, in order to provide against a repetition of such lengthy contests which are altogether too wearying for the public." Time limits would be imposed for the first time on Olympic wrestling matches in 1924.

Antwerp, 1920

Competing in Greco-Roman's 60kg (132.5 lbs) division, Finland's Oskar Friman never needed more than eight minutes to pin any of his four opponents, including countryman Haikki Kahkonen in the final. Friman's gold was among the 57 medals Finland had won in Greco-Roman wrestling through the 2000 Olympics, good for second on that discipline's all-time chart.

Paris, 1924

Finland's Kaarlo "Kalle" Antilla won freestyle gold at the 1920 Antwerp Games. In Paris, at age 36, he added a second Olympic title with victory in Greco-Roman's 60kg (132.5 lbs) division, giving Finland its third straight winner in that class.

Los Angeles, 1932

In a noteworthy display of versatility - and dieting - Swedish policeman Ivar Johansson captured a freestyle gold medal, then fasted and hit the sauna to shed 10-plus pounds so he could enter Greco-Roman's 72kg (158.5 lbs) division, which he also won. Compatriot Carl Westergren claimed his third Greco-Roman title - each at a different weight.

Berlin, 1936

Four years after Sweden's Ivar Johansson became the first wrestler to win Olympic gold in both wrestling disciplines at the same Games, Estonia's Kritjan Palusalu duplicated the feat. Palusalu, 27, claimed his titles in the freestyle and Greco-Roman unlimited weight classes. He and Johansson - who added a third career gold in Berlin - remain the only two wrestlers to achieve the single-Games double.

London, 1948

The Turkish government rewarded Gazanfer Bilge with a house and 20,000 Turkish lira - approximately $7,000 - for winning gold in the freestyle 62kg (136.5 lbs) division in London. Accepting the prize cost Bilge his Olympic eligibility for 1952, but allowed him to develop a lucrative career in the bus industry.

Miklos Szilvasi was a Hungarian policeman who was accidentally shot in the leg while on duty in 1946. As a result, his left foot was temporarily paralyzed. But through stringent rehabilitation, he was ready to wrestle by the 1948 London Games. There, in Greco-Roman's 73kg (160 lbs) final, he lost by decision to Sweden's Gosta Andersson. Four years later in Helsinki, the rivals again met in the Gold Medal Match, with Szilvasi winning by a 2-1 decision.

Helsinki, 1952

In addition to being a wrestler, 37-year-old Estonia native Johannes Kotkas was a former Soviet national champion in the hammer throw. In Helsinki, he marched to the Greco-Roman heavyweight title, needing just 13 minutes, 34 seconds in total to pin all four of his opponents.

Shohachi Ishii won the freestyle 57kg (125.5 lbs) division, becoming Japan's first post-war Olympic champion, and giving his nation the first of its now 22 gold medals in Olympic wrestling (through 2004). A talented judoka prior to World War II, Ishii turned to wrestling when U.S. occupation forces banned judo.

Melbourne, 1956

Born in 1930 into a poor family in Tehran, Gholam Reza Takhti left home at an early age to become an oil worker. Later, while in the army, he was introduced to wrestling. An eventual four-time Olympian, Takhti captured his lone gold medal at the 1956 Games. Wildly popular in his homeland, Takhti reportedly held an anti-government stance that threatened then-Shah Reza Pahlavi, so while his mysterious death in January 1968 was officially labeled suicide, many suspected Iran's secret police force, the SAVAK, was responsible.

Rome, 1960

A match in Greco-Roman's 67kg (147.5 lbs) class between the Soviet Union's Avtandil Koridze and Bulgaria's Dimiter Yanchev prompted suspicions of a "fix." To force a final bout with leader Branislav Martinovic of Yugoslavia, Koridze had to score a fall; any other result, and the Yugoslav got gold. With one minute left, Kordize whispered something to his Bulgarian opponent and proceeded to throw him down, scoring the needed fall. Yugoslavia immediately protested, and though Yanchev was disqualified, Koridze was allowed to advance. He then defeated Martinovic for gold.

Tokyo, 1964

Tokyo native Yojiro Uetake was a national champion high school wrestler in Japan before he attended college at Oklahoma State University. Midway through his sophomore year, Uetake, commonly known as "Yo-Jo," returned to Japan for the 1964 Games and won gold in freestyle's 57kg (125.5lbs) division. He returned to Oklahoma State and completed his collegiate career with three NCAA titles and an undefeated (58-0) record. With a successful defense of his title at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, Uetake became the first Japanese wrestler ever to win two Olympic gold medals.

Mexico City, 1968

With a bronze in freestyle's unlimited weight class, Germany's Wilfried Dietrich became the first - and still only - wrestler to own five Olympic medals. Frenchman Daniel Robin nearly became just the third wrestler to claim two titles at one Games when he finished runner-up at 78kg (172 lbs) in both freestyle and Greco-Roman.

Munich, 1972

The most prominent figure in U.S. wrestling, Dan Gable was known as much for his intensity and dedication as for his success. In the three years leading up to the Munich Games, Gable trained seven hours a day, every day. His reward: an Olympic gold in freestyle's 68kg (149.5 lbs) division that highlighted a 10-year run in which he won 299 matches and lost only six. Gable later coached the University of Iowa to 15 national championships, including an NCAA-record nine straight. He also coached U.S. teams at the 1984 and 2000 Olympics.

Montreal, 1976

In 1972, American John Peterson finished runner-up to Levan Tediashvili of the Soviet Union in freestyle's 82kg (181 lbs) division, while his brother, Ben, won freestyle gold at 90kg (198.5 lbs). Four years later, Tediashvili wrestled at 90kg and out-pointed Ben in the final, while John claimed gold at 82kg, giving each Peterson brother one gold and one silver medal.

Moscow, 1980

Twin brothers representing the hammer and sickle won freestyle wrestling's two lightest divisions at the Moscow Games. Anatoly Beloglazov, who defeated his final four opponents in under five minutes, earned gold at 52kg (114.5 lbs). One day later, his twin brother, Sergei, was victorious at 57kg (125.5 lbs). Sergei, who out-pointed his six victims 58-3, missed the 1984 Los Angeles Games because of the Soviet boycott, but claimed a second Olympic gold in Seoul.

Los Angeles, 1984

Entering the 1984 Olympics, the U.S. had never won an Olympic medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. Its super heavyweight entrant, Jeff Blatnick, seemed unlikely to change that. Then again, two years earlier, the New York native wasn't a good bet to even become an Olympian. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, Blatnick had his spleen and appendix removed in August 1982, and underwent radiation two months later. Ignoring concerns of doctors, Blatnick quickly resumed training, and ultimately made the U.S. team for Los Angeles. There, he capped his comeback by scoring twice in the final 64 seconds of the Gold Medal Match to defeat Sweden's Tomas Johansson. After falling to his knees and looking skyward, Blatnick dedicated the victory to his brother, Dave, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1977.

Seoul, 1988

The final of freestyle wrestling's 74kg (163 lbs) division pit Oklahoma native Kenny Monday against defending world champion Adlan Varayev of the Soviet Union. In a back-and-forth contest, Monday scored with 17 seconds left to tie the match and force overtime. There, 40 seconds in, Monday lifted the Russian into the air and slammed him to the mat for a three-point takedown that made him the first black wrestling gold medalist in Olympic history.

Barcelona, 1992

American Kevin Jackson and the Unified Team's Elmadi Jabrailov wrestled to a scoreless tie through regulation of the 82kg (181 lbs) freestyle final. Forty-six seconds into overtime, Jabrailov secured a deep leg attack, forcing the two wrestlers out of bounds. Jabrailov's coach, two-time Olympic champion Ivan Yarygin, argued that Jabrailov had control of Jackson and deserved a match-ending point. The referee decided otherwise, and Jackson eventually secured a double-leg takedown to win the gold. Jabrailov, distraught, had to be pushed onto the medal stand by Yarygin, but he refused to put the silver medal around his neck.

Atlanta, 1996

In Atlanta, the United States led the wrestling medal standings with eight, including freestyle golds from Kendall Cross, Tom Brands and Kurt Angle. The Greco-Roman team contributed three silver medals, one courtesy of Matt Ghaffari, who fell short in an epic struggle with Russian heavyweight Aleksandr Karelin. With a 1-0 overtime victory, Karelin became the first wrestler to win three consecutive gold medals in the same weight class (130kg/286 lbs).

Sydney, 2000

Russian Aleksandr Karelin entered Sydney universally regarded as the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time, and with a chance to become wrestling's first four-time Olympic champion. Undefeated in his 13-year international career, the chiseled and fearsome Karelin advanced to the 130kg (286 lbs) final, where he faced unassuming - and by Karelin's standards, unaccomplished - American Rulon Gardner. But with sound technique and tactics, the 29-year-old Gardner, who grew up on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyoming, took a 1-0 lead at the start of the second period and held on through overtime to deliver one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. After winning bronze in Athens, Gardner left his shoes on the mat, signifying his retirement from wrestling.

Athens, 2004

Women's freestyle wrestling made its Olympic debut with competition in four weight classes. Japan, which entered the Games with four 2003 world champions on its roster, dominated as expected with Kaori Icho winning gold in the 63kg (138.5 lbs) division and Saori Yashida winning gold in the 55kg (121 lbs) division. Chiharu Icho won silver in the 48kg (105.5 lbs) division and Kyoko Hamaguchi, whose father Heigo was a famous professional wrestler in Japan, won bronze in the 72kg (158.5 lbs) division.

Beijing, 2008

Russia led all countries in medals for the third Olympics in a row, bringing home six of the 14 available men's golds. Japan again dominated the women's side, winning two of the four divisions. Henry Cejudo became the youngest American wrestler to win gold, doing so in the 55kg division at the age of 21. Sweden's Ara Abrahamian was disqualified by the IOC after stepping off the podium and dropping his bronze medal from the 84 kg weight class to protest the officiating.

London, 2012

The London Games marked the Olympic debut of one of the sport's bright young stars - American Jordan Burroughs. After a dominant collegiate career at the University of Nebraska, where he had two undefeated national championship seasons, Burroughs was flawless when he began his international career in 2011. He entered the 2012 Olympics having never lost a match in international competition, then won all four of his matches in freestyle's 74kg (163 lbs) division in London to claim a gold medal. Burroughs ultimately would not lose a match until 2014, and his 69-match winning streak stands as the longest in U.S. history. Burroughs was one of two Americans to win gold in wrestling, with teammate Jake Varner capturing freestyle's 96kg (211.5 lbs) title.

Japan continued their domination in women's wrestling, winning three of four gold medals. Kaori Icho (63kg/139 lbs) and Saori Yoshida (55kg/121 lbs) tied the record for most-ever gold medals in wrestling when they each won their third Olympic title.

Rio, 2016

As many expected, Japan's reign of dominance extended to the Rio Games. Eri Tosaka, Kaori Icho, Risako Kawai and Sara Dosho all won the gold for their respective divisions. The Russian men also finished off the Rio Games largely successful. Soslan Ramonov, Abdulrashid Sadulaev, Roman Vlasov and Davit Chakvetadze each took home gold medals while Aniuar Geduev and Sergey Semenov took home silver and bronze medals, respectively.

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