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Wrestling preview: Plenty of changes debuting at 2016 Olympics

A modernized version of wrestling makes its Olympic debut in Rio. Will it be good enough for the IOC to keep it on the Summer Games docket beyond 2024?

A few months after the 2012 London Games, the IOC voted to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport starting in 2020, claiming the sport needed to modernize the matches. The sport’s governing body (then known as FILA, now known as UWW) launched a campaign, bringing unlikely allies in the U.S., Iran and Russia together to support the Olympics’ oldest sport. The campaign worked and seven months later, wrestling was reinstated as an Olympic sport.

But the IOC’s initial decision to cut wrestling will have a huge impact in Rio, since these will be the first Games since FILA’s promise to make the sport easier to understand and more fun to watch for the average viewer.

Previously, wrestling matches consisted of three periods, and were scored in a “best-of-three” format with no cumulative scoring (similar to tennis). Now, each match will consist of two three-minute periods with cumulative scoring in order to try and reward aggressive wrestling and cut down on passivity. Also, each of the classifications—men’s freestyle, men’s Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle—will have six weight classes, as opposed to the old format of four weight classes in women’s freestyle and seven in men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman.

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Another big change this year will even be apparent even to the most casual fans—new uniforms. Traditionally, wrestlers have either worn red or blue singlets, depending on the color they were assigned for each match. Now, they will be able to wear singlets featuring their country’s colors, with both light and dark versions and subtle red and blue markings.

Wrestling is now safe for the 2020 and '24 Games, but the IOC will be watching the sport to see if these changes draw more of an interest in the sport for the future.

The U.S. leads the all-time medal count in Olympic wrestling, with 124 Olympic medals, but has struggled recently in Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle. The Americans failed to medal in Greco-Roman in London, and haven’t won a gold in the event since Rulon Gardner did so in 2000. Back-to-back world bronze medalist Andy Bisek and 2015 world fifth-place finisher Robby Smith are two Americans hoping to end that drought. The U.S. also has yet to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling, as Japan has dominated the sport since its addition to the Olympics in 2004. But three-time world champion Adeline Gray and 2015 world champion Helen Maroulis will both look to end that drought.


Athletes to watch

Jordan Burroughs

Jordan Burroughs is seeking to become the first U.S. wrestler to repeat as an Olympic gold medalist since John Smith won gold in 1988 and ’92. The New Jersey-native, who has become the face of the sport with his electric style on the mat and charismatic personality off of it, has seen some change in his personal life since winning gold in London—he and his wife Lauren had two children, a son and a daughter, the second of which was born in June. But he is the huge favorite at 74 kg (163 pounds). Since winning two NCAA titles at the University of Nebraska in 2010 and ’11, Burroughs has taken over the international wrestling world with his double leg takedown, which has led to three world championships, his London gold medal and a 24–1 overall record in world and Olympic competition.

Kaori Icho

Japan’s Kaori Icho is seeking to become the first wrestler (male or female) to win four straight Olympic gold medals after standing on top of the podium in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Icho, a ten-time world champion, has dominated women’s wrestling at 58 kg since 2003 with a 189-match win streak that lasted over the span of 13 years. But the 32-year-old was upset by Mongolia’s Orkhon Purevdorzh in the gold medal match at the Golden Grand Prix event in January, giving rivals hope again.

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Adeline Gray

Since women’s wrestling began as an Olympic event at the 2004 Athens Games, the U.S. has yet to win a gold medal in the sport, but it would be a shocker if Adeline Gray doesn’t change that in the 75 kg (165 pounds) weight class. The 25-year-old is buzzing with confidence—her new slogan is “Gray to Gold”—and for good reason. The Denver-native enters Rio with a 37-match winning streak, has won three of the last four world championships and also possesses a leg lace that no other woman in the world has been able to stop.

Kyle Snyder

Kyle Snyder is the youngest member of the U.S. wrestling team—the 20-year-old just finished his sophomore year at Ohio State—but he has a great shot at getting to the top of the podium at 97 kg (214 pounds). After only giving up one takedown and posting a 179-0 record in high school, he became the youngest world champion in USA wrestling history last summer when he topped defending champ Abdusalam Gadisov of Russia in the gold medal match. After winning the NCAA heavyweight title for the Buckeyes in March, he defeated 2012 London gold medalist Jake Varner at the trials. If he wins gold in Rio, he will surpass 2008 gold medalist Henry Cejudo as the youngest American wrestling champion in history.

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Mijain Lopez

The Cuban, who competes at 130 kg (286.5 pounds) in Greco-Roman wrestling, is seeking his third straight Olympic gold medal, which will tie one of the sport’s all time greats, the USSR and Russia’s Alexander Karelin—who most famously was upset by the U.S.’ Rulon Gardner in the Sydney Games—with the most golds in Greco-Roman wrestling history. Lopez is a five-time world champion, but lost to Riza Kayaalp from Turkey, who will be one of Lopez’s biggest competitors for the gold medal in Rio, in the gold medal match at last year’s World Championships.

Abdulrashid Sadulaev

Sadulaev, who will compete at 86 kg (190 pounds), is a heavy gold-medal favorite in Rio after winning the last two world championships while only surrendering a total of four points in those tournaments. Over the span of his four-year international career, the 20-year-old has posted a 58-1 international record. His biggest challengers in Rio will likely be Turkey’s Selim Yasar, Cuba’s Reineris Salas and a relatively unknown wrestler from the U.S. — J’den Cox, who has just stormed onto the international wrestling scene after winning his second NCAA title in March.

Gold-medal dates

Men’s freestyle

57 kg—August 19
65 kg—Sunday, August 21
74 kg—Friday, August 19
86 kg—Saturday, August 20
97 kg—Sunday, August 21
125 kg—Saturday, August 20

Men’s Greco-Roman

59 kg—August 14
66 kg—August 16
75 kg—August 14
85 kg—August 15
98 kg—August 16
130 kg—August 15

Women’s freestyle

48 kg—August 17
53 kg—August 18
58 kg—August 17
63 kg—August 18
69 kg—August 17
75 kg—August 18