Top Stories of the Decade

Russian Men, Japanese Women Dominate the Decade

By Ken Marantz

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, Switzerland (December __ ) -- At this year's World Championships in Nur-Sultan, both Kyrgyzstan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea came away with their first-ever world gold medals in women's wrestling. France earned its first medal of any kind in freestyle with a bronze. And the tiny enclave of San Marino, while not winning a medal, qualified a wrestler for the Olympics for the first time.

While the family of champion-producing and medal-winning nations continues to expand, there are still a select number of countries that remain dominant. In looking at the decade from 2010 to 2019, Russia in both freestyle and Greco-Roman and Japan's women wrestlers soared high above all others.

The numbers speak for themselves, and show just how much of a gap there was during the 10-year span.

In freestyle during that period, Russia captured a total of 25 gold medals at the worlds, more than double the 12 of the nearest competitor, the United States. By comparison, Georgia was next highest with six golds, while Iran and Azerbaijan had five each.

The Russians also had the most silvers (9) and bronzes (18) for an overall total of 52. Iran was next highest with 29 (6 gold-9 silver-14 bronze), followed by the United States with 26 (12-3-11), Georgia with 21 (6-3-12) and Azerbaijan with 20 (5-7-8).

As medal tallies and team standings go hand-in-hand, it is no surprise that Russia took home six of the eight team titles up for grabs. Only runner-up finishes to Iran in 2013 and the United States in 2017--the latter by a one-point difference--denied Russia a perfect record.

The Olympics, with the reduced number of weight classes, narrowed the gap, but Russia still was either at or among the top of the heap, depending on how one crunches the numbers. Russia compiled three golds and seven medals overall at London 2012 and Rio 2016; Azerbaijan had more medals overall with eight, but one less gold with two. The United States tied Russia with three golds, to which it added two bronzes. Both Iran and Georgia had one gold and six medals overall.

Still only 23, Abdulrashid SADULAEV (RUS) made a large contribution to the Russian tally. Winning the gold at 97kg in Nur-Sultan gave the "Russian Tank" his fourth world title dating back to 2014, adding to his gold from Rio 2016 and a world silver from 2018.

Sadulaev hails from the wrestling hot spot of Dagestan, the mountainous republic in southwestern Russia on the Caspian Sea that has produced an inordinate amount of global champions, and supplies the national team with an unending line of top talent. At Rio 2016, there were six medalists in wrestling from that area alone.

"Wrestling is in our blood," Sadulaev said in an interview with the Olympic Channel. "That's why the Dagestanis are the best in the world."

The team standings at the World Championships determine the field for the ensuing World Cup, but while that team tournament can produce exciting matches, it doesn't always accurately reflect the strength of the nations, as rosters are often filled with second-string talent. As such, Russia won the freestyle World Cup just three times, while Iran had a run of six straight titles from 2012 to 2017. The United States won its lone title as host in 2018.

Roman VLASOV (RUS) celebrates after winning his second Olympic title. (Photo: Tony Rotundo) 

In Greco, Russia was only slightly less dominant, heading the pack that saw the spoils more widespread. Over the decade, Russia claimed 14 world golds and 37 medals overall (9 silvers, 14 bronzes), well ahead of the closest competitor, Turkey, which accumulated eight golds and 26 medals in total. Roman VLASOV (RUS)  won two world and two Olympic golds at 74-75kg during the span, while Musa EVLOEV (RUS) chipped in with two golds at 97kg.

Russia took the team title every year except 2014, when it was edged by Iran, which piled up six golds and 19 medals overall in the decade. Armenia also put on a strong showing with 16 overall medals (5-4-7), while Azerbaijan and Hungary had identical results in claiming 17 medals each (4-4-9).

In the two Olympics, Russia captured four golds and eight medals overall, which Cuba and Iran had three golds apiece. For what it's worth, Russia won the World Cup twice, the same number as Azerbaijan, while Iran took home the trophy four times, including three in a row from 2010 to 2012.

Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) celebrates after winning the 2015 world title in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Gabor Martin)

When it comes to women's wrestling, Japan got the jump on the rest of the world by putting resources into the sport during its infancy in the late 1980s, and everyone has been trying to catch up since. Adding it to the Olympic program at Athens 2004 provided incentive to the other nations to get in gear, but also served to motivate the Japanese even more.

From 2010 to 2019, Japan captured a whopping 26 gold medals at the World Championships, over 2 1/2 times that of its nearest rival, the United States, which had 10. It also represents more than one-third of the golds available (74). The golds were won by 20 different wrestlers, including Saori YOSHIDA (JPN), who won the last of her 13 world titles in 2015, the same year that Kaori ICHO (JPN) added her 10th and last world gold.

Japan also pocketed nine silvers (the most) and 12 bronzes for a total haul of 48 medals. The U.S. had the next biggest with 28 (10-6-12), while China and Ukraine each earned six golds, and Mongolia, Canada and Russia had four apiece. It was also a Bronze Age for the Chinese, who had 18 third-place finishes.

At the Olympics, the Japanese were in another stratosphere. Of the 10 gold medals awarded (four in London, six in Rio), seven were taken back to the Land of the Rising Sun, including two by Icho. Japan also had one silver medalist--the result of Yoshida's stunning loss to Helen MAROULIS (USA) at 53kg in Rio.

After finishing behind China in three of the first four World Cups of the decade, Japan started fielding stronger teams and last month won its fifth straight title. Three of the five wins came as host, including the most recent in Narita in November.

Like Dagestan for the Russians, there is a hotbed of wrestling in Japan that seems to churn out an inexhaustible flow of women wrestlers ready to challenge the upper echelon and make their own marks. It is not so much a place as an institution, Shigakkan University in central Japan and its affiliated high school.

Yoshida, Icho, Kawai and fellow Rio 2016 champion Sara DOSHO (JPN) are among the countless medal-winning wrestlers produced by Shigakkan, which was formerly known as Chukyo Women's University. One recent notable exception is two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN), who opted for Tokyo's Waseda University

While success in the age-group divisions does not always translate on the senior level, the numbers put up by the Japanese juggernaut over the decade have been nothing short of mind-numbing: 45 golds in the world juniors, 48 in the cadets, and 18 in the U-23, which has only been held since 2017.

Haruna OKUNO (JPN), as one of Japan's seven gold medalists at this year's world U-23, also became the lone wrestler to complete a "grand slam" of cadet, junior, U-23 and senior titles.

Top Stories of the Decade

Wrestling Fights its Way Back onto Olympic Programme

By Tim Foley

United World Wrestling President Nenad Lalovic speaks at the 125th IOC Session (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, Switzerland (January 3) – The news spread quickly. On the morning of February 12, 2013, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board voted that wrestling be eliminated from the Olympic Programme. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games would be the sport’s last as a member of the Olympic family.

By early afternoon stories had run on every major international wire and sports website informing the worldwide wrestling community of the sport’s unlikely elimination from the Olympic Games. With the information came an immediate and worldwide mobilization effort aimed at earning back wrestling’s position on the Olympic programme.

Reacting to the news, the FILA bureau met in Thailand to decide next steps. It was apparent that there had been missed signs and opportunities for organizational improvement and the bureau moved quickly to elect a new president, ultimately choosing Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic. Two months later Lalovic was elected interim president during an extraordinary Congress in Moscow and set the tone of hard work and cooperation that would ultimately prove successful in helping the sport recapture its spot in the Olympic Games.

“What goes on in this room today and the days that follow will determine if we are an Olympic sport after 2016. We have been given a strong message by the IOC.  How we answer that message will determine if our future includes the Olympic Games.  We need to convince the IOC that we will listen to them.  We are strong enough to change,” said Lalovic.

By June there were promotional events being held around the globe. In Japan a petition was signed with more than 1 million signatures. The United States and Russia raised millions of dollars to ensure additional promotion of values, consultation for a reshaping of the sport, and the creation of marketing and media departments.

In the midst of the upheaval the wrestling community had been given an opportunity. Shortly after the 125th IOC Session in September 2013 -- where members would vote to eliminate wrestling -- there would be a second vote allowing a new sport to earn its place on the programme. Wrestling was eligible for that slot, which allowed Lalovic and the wrestling community to focus its campaign on earning enough votes to win back the sport’s position in the Olympic Games.

The IOC has requests and Lalovic -- along with newly inspired cadre of wrestling leaders -- made the changes required to comply with good governance. One of the most pressing requests was that an effort be made for greater gender equity. Wrestling answered by expanding women’s wrestling to six weight categories to match with both Greco-Roman and men’s freestyle.

Competition rules were deemed too complicated for fans to follow so a new set was developed which simplified and focused action.

Women needed more representation in leadership positions. The referee body was to be separated from bureau control. Anti-doping education and enforcement were increased, and sport presentation was professionalized. As overhauls go, the renovation for wrestling would need to be complete.

On September 8, 2013 the 125th IOC Session took account of wrestling’s myriad initiatives and improvements and voted on whether or not to allow the sport back on to the programme for 2020 and beyond.

Wrestling – who faced competing bids from Squash and Baseball/Softball -- received 49 votes in the first ballot, which was enough to be awarded its position back in the Olympic Games.

"Today is the most important day in the 2,000-year history of our sport," Lalovic told the media in 2013. "We feel the weight of that history. Remaining on the Olympic programme is crucial to wrestling's survival."

From left to right: Jim Scherr, Daniel Igali, Lise Legrand, Carol Huynh and Nenad Lalovic were instrumental in getting wrestling back on the Olympic Programme (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

With the vote wrestling returned to the Olympics, but the energy -- the drive the change --wasn’t to wane.

"With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference,” Lalovic said in addressing media after the 2013 vote. "I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic movement that we can be."

Since 2013 the sport has continued to improve, develop, and grow. From a modernized development department to the inclusion of more women in leadership positions, and the signing of partnership, sponsor, TV and streaming deals –progress and innovation are at the center of the sport’s future.

FILA is now ‘United World Wrestling’ an organization with fresh branding and worldwide marketing initiatives. Gone are the yellow mats, replaced with eye-friendly deep blue with orange accents. The new rules are still creating some of the most entertaining sporting moments in the world, and more women have become top-of-the-fold superstars both inside the wrestling community and in the wider sports media.

United World Wrestling President Nenad Lalovic was elected to the same IOC executive board that had voted to eliminate the sport only five years before

President Lalovic has increased participation United World Wrestling’s cooperation with the IOC and was added as a member in 2015. In 2018 he was elected to the same IOC executive board that had voted to eliminate the sport only five years before.

“We can never forget the mistakes of our past,” said Lalovic. “But at the end of the decade it’s impossible to not feel optimistic. Our sport is the strongest it’s ever been, and we are excited for the 20’s so we can showcase our wrestlers in Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles. Wrestling is now and will always be part of the Olympic programme.”