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Olympic team preview in men’s freestyle wrestling

7/30/2004 Gary Abbott/USA Wrestling

There is no team medal in wrestling at the Olympic Games. But that does not mean there is no team competition. The major wrestling nations are as competitive, or even more, at the Olympics as they are at the World Championships where team scores are kept.

There are two ways to measure team success at the Olympic Games: the medal count and the unofficial team standings. Get the most medals and your team wins. Count the final standings just like a World Championships and your team gets bragging rights.

If you go back to the last Olympic Games, there is no doubt which team won. Russia claimed the medal count and the unofficial standings in freestyle. The USA was next, then the rest of the field followed.

Traditionally, there has been a “Big Three” in international freestyle wrestling with Russia, the United States and Iran all battling for top team honors. Some years, Ukraine, Cuba and Turkey have good showings and have even cracked into the top three spots.

But last year, Georgia won the team title at the World Championships in New York rather unexpectedly. Led by one team champion, Georgia had enough placewinners to score 33 points. The United States and Iran were tied with 31 points, but the USA received the tiebreaker with the highest placing athletes (2 silver medalist). Russia was fourth with 30 points, led by three champions and no other placewinners. It was one of the closest team races in history, and also a sign that nobody is in a position to dominate freestyle wrestling anymore.

Two major factors play into this. With a blind draw and the pool system of advancement, many top wrestling stars draw tough early opponents and are eliminated early. It has happened at every event since the pool system was adopted, including the last Olympic Games. Add to that the reduction in weight classes to seven, and even the best teams can crash with the loss of just a few athletes.

Then there is the difficult qualification process, where very few teams can get all of their athletes into the tournament. The team race is affected even before the Olympics begin, as the teams with the most depth get more horses into the race.

It is hardly a team race anymore. It is more of an individual tournament that adds up to team honors. In effect, a few great individuals can bring a team high in the standings. A team with balance can also do well, but only if they put a few people in the finals.

There are only four nations that have qualified all seven wrestlers for the Athens field: Russia, Iran, United States and Bulgaria. Greece gets a full team as the host nation, but even with all seven wrestlers, they are not expected to be much of a factor in freestyle.

Six other nations got in six of their athletes: Cuba, Georgia, India, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Ukraine. Even though they are missing one athlete, these teams could still win if their top individuals get the job done. Coming home with five athletes are Azerbaijan, Belarus, Japan and Uzbekistan. Those with four wrestlers are Armenia, Hungary, Korea and Mongolia. Teams with three or fewer really don’t have much chance (unless they all get into the medal round).

So, with all of that on the table, which teams have the best chances in Athens? It is still a good bet to start with the Big Three, then reach out to the others…

Russia

If Russia wrestles to its ability, it has a chance to be dominant. In 2003, Russia had three World Champions, and four athletes place out of the top 10, only placing fourth as a team. If even two of those weight classes improve, then Russia is in great shape for Athens.

The returning World champions for Russia are Irbek Farniev (66 kg), Bouvaisa Saitiev (74 kg) and Sajid Sajidov (84 kg). As with other Russian teams, even the World champions are not guaranteed a spot on the roster. It is almost certain that Saitiev will be in Athens, as no other Russian has matched his skills. Sajidov must get the nod over 2000 Olympic champion Adam Saitiev. Farniev has European champion Makahach Murtazaliev in his weight division. If all of the 2003 World Champions are not in the Russian lineup, you can bet their replacement is capable of winning gold as well.

The other four weight classes may hold the key for Russia. Traditionally, Russia is most powerful in the upper weights. However, in New York, Russia did not get a single team point at 96 kg and 120 kg. It is hard to expect that to happen again. At 96 kg, Georgi Gogshelidze was a World champion in 2001. European champion Khadjimurad Gatsalov may be the choice at 96 kg, however. The super heavyweight will be a past World champion. David Musulbes, the 2000 Olympic champion and 2001 and 2002 World champion is the veteran. Kouramagomed Kouramagomedov, who won a 1997 World title down at 97 kg, is reportedly beating Musulbes. These are strong weights for Russia.

Russia has been weak at the lower two weight divisions, and this could remain the case in Athens. The choice at 55 kg is probably Mavlet Batirov, who has not won a World-level medal. At 60 kg could be the 2000 Olympic champion Mourat Oumachanov, who made a strong comeback from retirement, Oumanachov is an improvement on the other Russian in recent meets, but how strong he is after his time off from wrestling is yet to be seen.

Tentative Russian lineup

55 kg - Mavlet Batirov, Adam Batirov or Alexander Kontoev

60 kg - Mourat Umachanov, Murat Ramazanov, Kamal Ustarkhanov

66 kg - Makahach Murtazaliev or Irbek Farniev

74 kg - Bouvaisa Saitiev or Magomed Isagadzhiev

84 kg - Sajid Sajidov or Adam Saitiev

96 kg- Khajimurad Gatsalov, Taimuraz Tiguev or Georgi Gogshelidze

120 kg - Kouramagomed Kouramagomedov or David Mussulbes

United States

The good news is this is the same exact team that placed second in the World Championships in New York City. The challenge for this team is to win more than the two medals that it took home in Madison Square Garden, both silvers. For the U.S. to emerge as the top team, there will have to be more medals won, and some might have to be gold. Certainly, this group is very capable.

Unlike previous U.S. Olympic Teams, there is not a past gold medalist on the roster. You have to go back to the 1968 Olympic Team to have an entire U.S. freestyle roster without a past World or Olympic champion. Consider these Olympic teams, with team members who already had a gold medal in their trophy case heading into the Games:

2000 – Sammie Henson, Terry Brands, Melvin Douglas

1996 – Tom Brands, Kenny Monday, Melvin Douglas, Kurt Angle, Bruce Baumgartner

1992 – Zeke Jones, John Smith, Kenny Monday, Kevin Jackson, Chris Campbell, Bruce Baumgartner

1988 – John Smith, Mark Schultz, Bill Scherr, Bruce Baumgartner

1984 – Dave Schultz

1980 – Lee Kemp, Ben Peterson

1976 – Lloyd Keaser, Ben Peterson

1972 – Rick Sanders, Dan Gable, Wayne Wells

You have to cut this team some slack about that, though. First of all, there are only seven weight classes anymore, making winning a gold that much tougher. Add back the three lost weight classes, and you can bet there would be more American golds. In addition, the U.S. team did not get to go to the 2002 World Championships in Iran because of the violence threat. That robbed this group of another chance to claim gold medals and to get that important World-level experience. This team has not had as much opportunity as the previous teams.

If they haven’t won any gold medals before, what makes it logical that they will win them now? To start, three team members have won World medals. Cael Sanderson (84 kg) and Kerry McCoy (120 kg) were World silver medalists in 2003. Joe Williams (74 kg) was a World bronze medalist in 2001. McCoy and Williams have great experience levels. Sanderson has only been to one World tournament, and was one point away from winning it.

All three will have tough challenges against people they have lost to. Williams may have to face Russia’s World and Olympic champion Buvaisa Saitiev. Sanderson’s loss in New York came to Russia’s Sajidov, and he has lost a few to Cuba’s Yoel Romero. McCoy has yet to beat Uzbekistan’s Artur Taymazov. The U.S. athletes will be prepared to win these bouts this time, plus they may never even face those opponents.

Of the other wrestlers, Stephen Abas (55 kg) has beaten many other champions and medalists in his weight class. He has beaten gold medalists such as Montero of Cuba, Abdullayev of Azerbaijan and Kontoyev of Belarus. Although he has no medal, his fifth place effort in New York featured some great wins.

One of the experienced athletes on the team is Eric Guerrero (60 kg) who has twice placed in the top 10 at the World Championships. He also has wins against past champions and medalists. Daniel Cormier (96 kg) was fifth in the World last year, and has shown some tremendous talent and a killer instinct. Jamill Kelly (66 kg) is still an unknown quanity around the world, but his U.S. opponents have seen his talent for two straight years. This U.S. team has the same attitude of all of the others, that each and every member is capable of winning gold. None will be satisfied with anything less.

Tentative U.S. roster

55 kg - Stephen Abas

60 kg - Eric Guerrero

66 kg - Jamill Kelly

74 kg - Joe Williams

84 kg - Cael Sanderson

96 kg - Daniel Cormier

120 kg - Kerry McCoy

Iran

The Iran team that will show up in Athens is experienced and talented. The lineup could feature as many as four past World champions. The squad will have a strong tradition behind it, and confidence from winning the World Team title in 2002 when the meet was held in Tehran, Iran. Of course, the Olympics is not wrestled on paper, so the Iranian team has some question marks.

The two big stars on the roster are Ali Reza Dabir (66 kg) and Ali Reza Heidari (96 kg). Dabir was an Olympic champion in 2000 and a World champion in 1998. Heidari won his World title in 1998 as well. Last year, Heidari won a World silver medal, while Dabir did not finish in the top 10. Go back to the Sydney Olympics, when Dabir won, and you find Heidari placing sixth. Both are great wrestlers, but neither is a lock for a medal.

The other expected World champion in the lineup is Mehdi Hajizadeh, who claimed his World crown in 2002. He beat a Russian in the finals there, but it was not superstar Buvaisa Saitiev should be in the field in Athens. Last year, his replacement Hadi Habibi was fourth in the World, so Iran will be very solid at this division.

Another possible World champion in the mix is Mohammed Talaee at 60 kg, but the athlete reportedly making the team is Moustafa Jokar. The Iranian heavyweight, Ali Reza Rezaii at 120 kg, was a World bronze medalist in 2003, which was easily his best performance ever. Majid Khodaei (84 kg) was a World bronze medalist in 2002. Babak Noorzad (55 kg) was a World silver medalist in 2001. Therefore, the Iranian team could have a World medalist in every division, or at least in six of them. That makes them a major threat to win the team title, no doubt. The key for Iran will be having everybody wrestling well at the same time, which is hard to achieve.

Tentative Iranian team

55 kg - Babak Noorzad or Mohammad Aslani

60 kg - Moustafa Jokar or Mohammed Talaee

66 kg - Ali Reza Dabir

74 kg - Mehdi Hajizadeh or Hadi Habibi

84 kg - Majid Khodaei or Feridun Ghanbaripisar

96 kg - Ali Reza Heidari

120 kg - Ali Reza Rezaii

Georgia

This is the reigning World Champion team. History has shown that Georgia is tough in freestyle but has never before been the team at the top. Can Georgia do it again with only six athletes qualified for the Olympics? You have to look closely at the champion team last year. It featured two medalists and five athletes who placed in the top 10 of their weight divisions. This team reached the top with balance and consistency.

The team’s superstar is Eldar Kurtanidze, the powerful two-time World champion at 96 kg. Kurtanidze has already won a pair of Olympic bronze medals and is returning for a gold this time. The other medalist from New York is Revaz Mindorashvili, who was third in a very strong weight class. Both will be expected to be right in the fight for medals once again.

Two athletes placed fifth in New York, David Pogosian (60 kg) and Otari Tushiashvili (66 kg). That gave Georgia a bunch of team points. The other World placewinner was David Otiashvili at 120 kg, an athlete who was also fourth in the World in 2002. Georgia got one other athlete in through the qualifying events at 74 kg, either Gela Sagirashvili or Georgi Mechedlidze.

The Georgia team has talent, but the question is how many of the athletes will be able to emerge with medals under the pressure of the Olympics. A bunch of athletes in the top 10 is excellent, but at the Olympics, the name of the game is winning medals. For a great performance, Georgia will need more than the two medals it won in New York.

Tentative Georgian lineup

55 kg – not qualified

60 kg - David Pogosian or Lasha Lomadze

66 kg - Otari Tushishvili

74 kg - Gela Sagirashvili or Georgi Mechedlidze

84 kg - Revaz Mindorashvili

96 kg – Eldar Kurtanidze

120 kg - David Otiashvili or Aleksi Modebadze

Cuba

Of the teams with six qualifiers, this Cuban team is perhaps the most dangerous. For some reason, Cuba did not bring a full team to the World Championships in New York last year. Only its three Pan American Games champions were given tickets to attend the meet. All three placed in the top six of their weight classes at the World meet, a strong showing. In the other three weight classes, Cuba made the finals of the first Olympic Qualification Tournament, another excellent effort. Only 96 kg, which was manned by an old veteran, did not get qualified for the Olympics.

Realistically, all six Cuban wrestlers are medal contenders. There are three past World champions in the lineup: Roberto Montero (55 kg), Yoel Romero (84 kg) and Alexis Rodriguez (120 kg). Of these three, only Romero competed in New York City, and he finished sixth. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Romero won a silver medal and Rodriguez won a bronze medal. All three are very capable of making it to the medal rounds in Athens.

The big star for Cuba in New York was Yandro Quintana, who won the World silver medal at 60 kg. This young star has steadily improved, and is now expected to be a title contender. Placing fourth at the 2004 World meet was Serguei Rondon at 60 kg. He is a rising star. The other Cuban athlete will probably be Ivan Fundora, who was second behind Joe Williams at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament at 74 kg. Another option at 74 kg is Daniel Gonzalez, who lost to Williams at the 2003 Pan American Games finals. This team could potentially have a number of medalists which jumps them high in the team battle.

Tentative Cuban lineup

55 kg - Roberto Montero

60 kg - Yandro Quintana

66 kg - Serguei Rondon

74 kg - Ivan Fundora or Daniel Gonzalez

84 kg - Yoel Romero

96 kg – not qualified

120 kg - Alexis Rodriguez

Bulgaria

So Bulgaria has all seven wrestlers qualified for the Olympic Games? Shouldn’t that put Bulgaria right in the thick of the race? That makes sense, but for Bulgaria and any other team to make an impact, it needs to get people through the pools and into the medal rounds.

Bulgaria has two past World Champions in its lineup, Serafim Barzakov at 66 kg and Nikolai Paslar at 74 kg. Barzakov was second in the 2003 World Championships and has won many other World-level medals. He is a true gold-medal favorite. A problem is that the cut in weight classes down to seven basically stole Paslar’s chance for another title. He won his title at 69 kg, and had to move up to 74 kg. Paslar is just not as big as the athletes there. He qualified for Athens at the final Olympic Qualifier. Paslar will not be favored to win a medal, but he has the talent to make a run for it.

A World bronze medalist from 2003 was Krassimir Kotchev at 96 kg, who was also a 2001 World silver medalist. The other four Bulgarian wrestlers all qualified through the Olympic Qualification events, meaning they were not top 10 finishers in New York. A few of these athletes will need to have improved performances to put Bulgaria in serious contention for team recognition.

Tentative Bulgarian lineup

55 kg - Radislav Velikov or Ivan Velkov Dyorev

60 kg - Anatoly Guidea or Nikolai Georgiev

66 kg - Serafim Barazakov

74 kg - Nikolai Paslar

84 kg - Arkadiy Tzopa

96 kg - Krassimir Kotchev

120 kg - Bojidar Boyadjiev

Ukraine

Based upon past performance, Ukraine deserves consideration for a strong team showing in Athens. Putting athletes in the medal rounds is the name of the game, and Ukraine has the horses to make a run for it.

Perhaps the best Ukrainian medal hopeful is Oleksandr Zakharuk, who was third in the 2003 World Championships at 55 kg and has won a number of European titles. Just missing a medal in New York was Serhii Priadun at 120 kg, who was fourth.

The most successful wrestler on the team is three-time World champion Elbrus Tedeev, who won his last gold medal at the 2002 World meet. Tedeev was sixth in the World meet in New York, and remains a medal contender even at an advanced age. A two-time World bronze medalist who could come through for Ukraine is Vadym Tasoev at 96 kg. The expected entry at 84 kg, Eldar Asanov, was a World silver medalist in 1997. The other weight class features two veterans, Yevgen Buslovich or Vasyl Fedoryshin at 60 kg. These six athletes could do some damage at the Olympics.

Tentative Ukrainian lineup

55 kg - Oleksandr Zakharuk

60 kg - Yevgen Buslovich or Vasyl Fedoryshin

66 kg - Elbrus Tedeev

74 kg – not qualified

84 kg - Eldar Asanov

96 kg - Vadym Tasoev

120 kg - Serhii Priadun

Uzbekistan

With only five athletes in the field, Uzbekistan will need strong individual performances. With two 2003 World champions, this team can still score big points. Winning gold medals in New York City were Dilshod Mansurov at 55 kg and Artur Taymazov at 120 kg. Mansurov was a bit of a surprise, taking a loaded weight class. Taymazov, an Olympic and World silver medalist before winning it all in 2003, could be the best super heavyweight on the planet.

Damir Zakhartdinov, who was fourth at the 2000 Olympics, was eighth at the World Championships last year. Magomed Ibragimov at 96 kg and Artur Tavkazakhov at 66 kg got into the Athens field through the Olympic Qualification events. This is a team with talent.

Tentative Uzbekistan lineup

55 kg - Dilshod Mansurov or Adcham Achilov

60 kg - Damir Zakhartdinov

66 kg - Artur Tavkazakhov

74 kg – not qualified

84 kg – not qualified

96 kg - Magomed Ibragimov

120 kg - Artur Taymazov

Kazakhstan

All of the former Soviet republics have talented individuals and can string together a good team performance. Kazakhstan is one of those with potential.

The team had one medalist at the 2003 World meet, bronze medalist Gennadiy Laliyev at 74 kg. Just missing a medal in 2003 were Magomed Kurguliev, who was fifth at 84 kg and Marid Mutalimov, who was sixth at 120 kg. The team qualified athletes to compete in three other weight classes, with veteran Islam Bairamukov at 96 kg. With six athletes in the field, this team has a chance to make an impace.

Tentative Kazakhstan lineup

55 - Bauyrshan Orazgaliev or Maulen Mamyrov

60 kg – not qualified

66 kg - Leonid Spiridonov

74 kg - Gennadiy Laliyev

84 kg - Magomed Kurguliev

96 kg - Islam Bairamukov

120 kg - Marid Mutalimov

Belarus

Any team with four athletes in the top 10 of their weight classes at the World meet has the chance to do even better the next year. This is what Belarus did in New York, and their best athlete did not even place in the tournament. The team has five entries in Athens, and all could be medal contenders.

Herman Kontoev was a World champion in 2001, but missed out on a placement at 55 kg at the 2003 World Championships. Belarus did have a strong performance in the upper weights. Murad Gaidarov was second at 74 kg. Siarhei Borchanka was fourth at 84 kg. Also placing in the top 10 were Baris Hrinkovich at 120 kg and Alexandr Shemarov at 96 kg. If this team gets on a run, it could have a very strong performance.

Tentative Belarus lineup

55 kg - Herman Kontoev

60 kg – not qualified

66 kg – not qualified

74 kg - Murad Gaidarov

84 kg - Siarhei Borchanka

96 kg - Alexandr Shemarov

120 kg - Baris Hrinkevich

Other teams to watch

Turkey has a strong tradition, and brings six athletes to Athens. The problem is few are top medal favorites. The top placing Turkish athlete in New York was sixth at 60 kg, Tevfik Odabasi. Two other wrestlers were in the top 10, Gohan Yavaser (seventh at 74 kg) and Ramazan Demir (eighth at 55 kg). Perhaps the best medal hopeful is veteran Aydin Polatci at 120 kg.

Azerbaijan has five qualifiers, but two have won gold medals: 2000 Olympic champion Namig Abduallaev at 55 kg and 2003 World champion Arif Abdullaev at 60 kg. Elnur Asanov (74 kg) was ninth in the world last year…

Japan placed five athletes in the field, with a surprise World bronze medalist in Kazuhiko Ikematsu at 66 kg. As is the tradition, Japan is strong in the light weights, not qualifying at 96 kg or 120 kg…

India placed six athletes in the field, and has one of the fastest improving teams in international wrestling. The top placer last year was Sushil Kumar, who was fourth at 60 kg. India looked strong in the Olympic Qualification Tournaments…

The teams with four qualifiers will all be on the bubble. A few good individuals can pull them up in the unofficial standings. Watch out for these nations: Armenia, Hungary, Korea and Mongolia.

Canada has two veteran stars, World and Olympic champion Daniel Igali at 74 kg and World champion Giuvi Sissaouri at 60 kg. If this pair makes it to the medal round, Canada does well, even though it only has three in the field…

FREESTYLE OLYMPIC QUALIFIERS (by nation)

Bulgaria (7): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

*Greece (7): 55 kg. 60 kg. 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Iran (7): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Russia (7): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

United States (7): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg. 96 kg, 120 kg

Cuba (6): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 120 kg

Georgia (6): 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

India (6): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 120 kg

Kazakhstan (6): 55 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 94 kg, 120 kg

Turkey (6): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg. 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Ukraine (6): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Azerbaijan (5): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 96 kg

Belarus (5): 55 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Japan (5): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg

Uzbekistan (5) : 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Armenia (4): 55 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg

Hungary (4): 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 120 kg

Korea (4): 55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 84 kg

Mongolia (4): 55 kg, 60 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Canada (3): 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg

China (3): 55 kg, 60 kg. 96 kg

Kyrgyzstan (3): 60 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Poland (3): 74 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg

Austria (2): 60 kg, 96 kg

Moldova (2): 55 kg, 66 kg

Germany (2): 84 kg, 120 kg

Italy (2): 74 kg, 120 kg

Macedonia (2): 74 kg, 84 kg

Romania (2): 84 kg, 120 kg

Slovakia (2): 66 kg, 96 kg

Tajikistan (2): 74 kg, 84 kg

Australia (1): 74 kg

France (1): 84 kg

Namibia (1): 96 kg

Qatar (1): 60 kg

South Africa (1): 55 kg

Switzerland (1): 96 kg

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