SYDNEY (Reuters) - With Japanese grapplers Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho on course for fourth successive gold medals in their respective classes, it is perhaps appropriate that women wrestlers will have more chance to shine on the mat at the Rio Olympics.
One of the few sports still extant with their roots in the Ancient Olympics, wrestling has included women only since the return to Athens in 2004, when they competed in four freestyle classes.
Yoshida won gold in the 55kg class and Icho the 63kg, both retained the titles in Beijing and London and are favorites to join discus thrower Al Oerter and long jumper Carl Lewis as the only Olympians to win four consecutive individual titles in the same event.
Their dominance of their respective events has been almost absolute. Ten-times world champion Icho was undefeated between 2003 and January this year, while Yoshida has won 13 world titles.
Yoshida, who carried her country’s flag at the London Games, will also become the first woman to captain the Japanese team at an Olympics.
In 2013, United World Wrestling (UWW), after rallying to save the sport from Olympic exclusion from Tokyo 2020, took two classes out of the men’s competitions to expand the number of women’s gold medals to six.
UWW’s main concern this week, though, has been the doping scandal that has engulfed sport in Russia, which under its various guises has dominated wrestling at the modern Olympics.
The cloud of the scandal was finally lifted from the competition, officially at least, when UWW announced on Thursday that 16 of 17 Russians would be allowed to compete from Aug. 14-21 at the Olympic Training Center.
The Russian grip on the sport has in any case been slipping at the last few Games in the face of the challenge from Iran and Cuba in the Greco-Roman discipline and a string of former Soviet Republics and the United States in freestyle.
American Jordan Burroughs is strongly favored to retain his freestyle welterweight (74kg) title but the 20-year-old “Russian Tank” Abdulrashid Sadulaev will be also looking to add the middleweight (86kg) gold to his two world titles.
Women do not compete in the Greco-Roman style, which forbids the use of legs to trip opponents and bans holds below the waist.
Iran won three golds to Russia’s two in London and bantamweight gold medalist and six-times world champion Hamid Sourian is another of the string of wrestlers expected to defend their titles in Rio.
Hulking Cuban Mijain Lopez exemplifies the upper body strength and technique required by the Greco-Roman style and the 33-year-old will be looking for a third straight gold in the superheavyweight class.
Editing by Andrew Both