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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    No Asterisks Necessary: Making Sense of the Russian-less Olympic Games

    Yesterday, mainstream news outlets like Reuters and the Associated Press reported that the Russian Wrestling Federation has decided not to send any wrestlers to the 2024 Olympic Games. Just over a week ago, 16 wrestlers across the three styles were awarded Olympic quotas that were initially won by either Russian or Belarussian competitors at the 2023 World Championships or qualifying events since then. 

    Some notable Russian men’s freestyle wrestlers like 2020 Olympic champions Zaur Uguev, Zaurbek Sidakov, and Abdulrashid Sadulaev were among those wrestlers who earned quotas for Russia but were not permitted after United World Wrestling ruled them ineligible due to their support of Russia during their war with Ukraine. 

    We’re not here today to discuss the geopolitical angle of “should they/shouldn’t they” compete. Wrestling fans who follow the international scene and are familiar with these Russian standouts typically want them to compete so that our American representatives can surpass them and win gold medals. Kyle Snyder (Sadualev) and Jordan Burroughs (Sidakov) have had some incredible matches against their respective Russian opponents and, ideally, we’d like to see more matches of that sort. 

    But they aren’t happening. Shortly after wrestling media picked up on the news of Russia’s decision yesterday, The Wrestling Room’s Pat Mineo suggested that “some fans” may look at our potential gold medal winners as needing “an asterisk” because they prevailed without having these Russians in the bracket. 

    The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games and the United States went on to win gold medals in seven of ten weights. I’m of the opinion that you can’t control who is or isn’t in the bracket, so there shouldn’t be a “yeah, but” disclaimer with some of those 1984 gold medals. 

    I’m here to warn you about falling into that asterisk trap. Don’t do it!

    If you are someone who thinks 1984 medals deserve an asterisk and this year may be applicable, remember the entire landscape of the wrestling world has changed dramatically since then. In 1984, you only had to beat one wrestler from the Soviet Union. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there are so many more potential threats among the brackets. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine are some of the countries that emerged after the Soviet breakup and consistently challenge for world medals. Regardless of weight or style, there’s probably one or two wrestlers from one of those nations that’s a medal contender in every bracket. 

    Now, I’m going to break it down even further to illustrate that the discussion of an asterisk doesn’t even make sense for 90% of the Americans competing in Paris. 

     

    Greco-Roman

    First and foremost, the elephant in the room - Greco-Roman. The most recent American to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco was Rulon Garnder in 2000. Gardner earned bronze at the 2004 Games that followed. Over the past 10 Olympic/World Championship events America has only captured four total Greco medals. 

    Russia is a Greco power - however, there are plenty of other countries that have an Olympic medal threat or two. In 2020(1), five different countries won Olympic gold medals (only Cuba had two) and one of those was by a Russian (Musa Evloev - 97 kg). Of the 24 medals won at those Olympic Games, 16 different countries had at least one. For full disclosure, Russia was the only country with three medals. 

    So, with our lack of success at Greco coupled with the vast amount of countries that are typically good at Greco, I don’t care what the circumstances are - if we win a gold medal in Greco, it’s a massive success and a huge deal. If we win gold, I’ll tell you where to stick the asterisk. 


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    Women’s Freestyle

    Since the inception of women’s wrestling in the Olympic Games, it has been Japan - not the United States or Russia - who has been the dominant player. Women’s freestyle first appeared in the 2004 Olympic Games. Since then, Japan has won 15 of 24 Olympic gold medals awarded to women. Russia, on the other hand, has just one (Natalia Vorobieva in 2012). 

    Russia isn’t much of an impact player in the women’s freestyle game. In 2024, they did not come away with any medals from the World Championships and they didn’t even appear in a single bronze medal match. 

    Once the Olympic field appeared to be set, after the World OG Qualifier, Russia had representatives at five of six weight classes. Not having these Russians probably doesn’t eliminate any gold medalists; however, with the small 16-woman brackets at the Olympic Games, there’s the possibility that one or two could be in the medal hunt. 

    Let’s be real. If any of our six women win Olympic gold in 2024, it’ll be because they had to go through a Japanese star - along with perhaps a very tough opponent from China, India, Mongolia, or Kyrgyzstan. There is no asterisk necessary for beating some combination of those foes and not having a Russian in the bracket. 
     

    Men’s Freestyle

    We’re going into more details with men’s freestyle and weight-by-weight as asterisks, from an American standpoint, as they don’t make any sense in Greco or Women’s Freestyle.  

    125 kgs

    Let’s start with one of the easier arguments. In the 2023 World Championships, Mason Parris needed just under four and a half minutes to run through Russia’s Abdulla Kurbanov for a bronze medal in his first Senior World-level event. Later in 2023, Wyatt Hendrickson pinned Kurbanov in the Round of 16 at the U23 World Championships. 

    Anything can happen; wrestlers can improve (or regress), but I don’t know if Kurbanov is a threat to Parris in 2024. Both are relatively young, and Parris in particular, seems to be getting better by the competition, so Kurbanov is not the main medal threat for Parris. 

    That label falls squarely on Amir Zare (Iran), Geno Petriashvili (Georgia), and Taha Akgul (Turkey). Excluding the Olympic win by Gable Steveson, this trio has accounted for every World/Olympic gold medal since 2014. 

    Kurbanov represents another medal contender, but is not at the level of the “big three” as of yet. 
     

    86 kg

    Since Sadulaev moved up from 86 kg following the 2016 Olympic Games, every World/Olympic gold medal at this weight has been won by either David Taylor or Hassan Yazdani (Iran). With Taylor out of the equation after losing to fellow Penn State superstar, Aaron Brooks at the Olympic Trials, many assume this weight class will be a two-horse race between the Iranian and the American, once again. It may not play out that way, but it looks that way on paper. 

    The Russian who qualified for the Olympics at 86 kg was Artur Naifonov. Naifonov is a three-time World/Olympic bronze medalist. He’s never really threatened to break the stranglehold that Taylor/Yazdani has had on this class; however, he’s a very dangerous and capable contender. 

    That being said, the target for American fans is Yazdani. Should Brooks win a bracket that includes Yazdani, I don’t think anyone bats an eye over the omission of a Russian. 
     

    57/65 kg

    I’m going to list these two weights together, because I think they are very similar in their composition. Both are absolutely loaded with gold medal threats. Russians or not. They are the types of weights where you could wrestle them five different times and possibly get five different champions. Maybe that’s not the case with Spencer Lee in the mix at 57 kg, as we haven’t seen him compete at the Senior World level yet. 

    The Russian stalwart at 57 kg has been Uguev. He won gold at the last Olympics, along with the 2018 and 2019 World Championships. However, Uguev did not medal at the 2023 World Championships. In Serbia, he fell to Stevan Micic (Serbia) in the quarterfinals and Zelimkhan Abakarov (Albania) in the bronze medal match. He did shut out an opponent from Kazakhstan to seemingly lock up an Olympic berth. 

    Uguev is right there with some of the best in the world, but he isn’t a big favorite like he was a few years ago. Wrestling at 57 kg in men’s freestyle can have a short life span like that of an NFL running back. Having a grown man approaching 30 years old, (Uguev is 29) make 57 kg a couple times a year is rough. 

    Heavyweights like Agkul and Petriashvili can wrestle at a high level into their 30’s because they’re not necessarily relying on their speed and athleticism like a 57 kg wrestler would do. Looking at Uguev’s 2020(1) Olympic medal picture - none of the medalists will return in 2024 (Ravi Kumar - India, Thomas Gilman, Nurislam Sanayev - Kazakhstan). Even if Uguev was available, could Father Time be catching up to him quickly? It’s hard to say because he didn’t compete in the lead-up to the 2023 World Championships. 

    In a perfect world, you’d love to see Lee defeat Uguev to represent the changing of the guard. However, this isn’t the 2018 version of Uguev. In reality, winning a weight class and beating some combination of Micic, Abakarov, Arsen Harutyunyan (Armenia), Roman Bravo-Young (Mexico), Aman Sehrawat (India), Japan’s representative and/or Wanhao Zou (China) is impressive in and of itself. In 2024, no asterisk is needed. 

    65 could feature Zain Retherford against a bracket that includes eight other past world medalists. More than half the bracket has been on a World or Olympic medal stand. Three (not counting Retherford) have won world titles. 

    Like 57, would you like to have Shamil Mamedov in the bracket? Absolutely, he’s a returning world bronze medalist and lost by a point to the eventual champion (Iszmail Musukaev - Hungary) by a point in the quarterfinals. Does it lack substance or starpower without him? No!

    The last time we saw Mamedov, he lost in the opening round of the Yasr Dogu 14-3 to Abdulmazhid Kudiev of Tajikistan in under four minutes. In his next match, Kudiev was pushed the full six minutes by Arizona State freshman Kaleb Larkin. Make no mistake, Kudiev is no slouch. He was one of the opponents that Retherford defeated (5-2) at the World OG Qualifier in repechage. Aside from Mamedov, Kudiev has some good recent wins (Alejandro Valdes Tobier - Cuba). 

    Comparing wins, win margins, and common opponents can be a fool’s errand, especially at this 65 kg weight class; however, the point of it is to illustrate that Mamedov is very good - he could perhaps win this Olympic bracket. At the same time, he could go 0-1. The same can be said for maybe 10 wrestlers in the field. 

    Mamedov not being in the bracket doesn’t warrant an asterisk discussion. 
     

    97 kg

    Now we’re getting into the two weights where most that advocate for hypothetical asterisks may point to first. Snyder/Sadulaev has been one of the best recent rivalries from an American fan’s standpoint. Snyder’s 2017 world finals win over Sadulaev will be played and replayed for decades as it clinched a team title for the men’s freestyle team and saw Snyder prevail over a dominant Russian foe. 

    The initial ruling by UWW - the one that prevented Sadulaev from competing at the 2024 Olympics was a downer for wrestling fans in general. I’m not sure anyone, particularly American fans, would be opposed to another match or two between the two greats. 

    Sentimentality and personal enjoyment aside, should Snyder come back from Paris with another gold medal, it will have been well-earned and not asterisk-worthy. 

    Neither Snyder nor Sadulaev would be considered the favorite in 2024. That distinction belongs to Sadulaev’s former understudy, Akhmed Tazhudinov, who now wrestles for Bahrain. Tazhudinov seemingly came out of nowhere to tech Snyder in the 2023 World quarterfinals. A match later, he was up on Sadulaev by seven points when the Russian injury defaulted out of the tournament. To win gold, Tazhudinov got up by seven on Magomedkhan Magomedov of Azerbaijan before securing a fall.

    Earlier this year, Snyder was defeated in the finals of the Zagreb Open by Iran’s Amirali Azarpira (6-3). Azapira qualified the weight for Iran at the Asian Olympic Qualifier and is presumably their rep. Were Snyder to win, he might have to beat two opponents that have defeated him within the calendar year, neither of which is named Sadulaev. 

    At this point in their careers, a win over Tazhudinov might be more difficult than a win over Sadulaev. For now, it doesn’t necessarily have the same luster as beating Sadulaev, but in my opinion, it isn’t worthy of an asterisk. 
     

    74 kg

    This one is the other anticipated matchup we were hoping to see. Kyle Dake versus Sidakov. A rematch of the 2023 world final, won by Sidakov, 10-7. Sidakov has won this weight class at every World/Olympic event he’s entered since 2018. He did not compete in the 2021 World Championships that followed the Olympic Games that year and was not allowed to wrestle in 2022. Since 2018, Dake has only lost twice - once being in last year’s world finals to Sidakov. 

    In addition to Sidakov, Mahamedkhabib Kadzimahamedau of Belarus was also denied the opportunity to compete in Paris by UWW. Kadzimahamedau is also responsible for the other recent loss on Dake’s resume (2020 Olympics). He went on to take the silver medal at the last Olympic Games. 

    It’s unfortunate that Dake won’t have the opportunity to avenge either of his two semi-recent losses on the way to an Olympic gold medal. You can make what you want of whatever Dake’s performance in Paris. I have a hard time knocking someone with a resume like his (5 world medals - 4 gold/1 silver and an Olympic bronze) and claiming a potential gold medal is hollow.

    The people who throw shade at the 1984 gold medalists, typically point at wrestlers who earned their only world-level medal at the tournament. Dake does not fall into that category.

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    Conclusion: As you can tell, I'm not fond of the asterisk term at all, especially in the case of the Americans wrestling in 2024 and their respective situations and challenges. I also think you could only make an argument about it at one or two weights, in reality. 

    Before we go, I’ll pull back the curtain, a bit. I’ve served as an editor for three different wrestling websites, two of which covered international wrestling. General international wrestling doesn’t move the needle that much for the wrestling public. The Olympics does and content promoting the Olympics does. A preview of NC State/Virginia Tech probably gains more traction than a weight class preview of 65 kg in men’s freestyle at the 2023 World Championships. 

    There are a very, very select few wrestling fans who know all ten Russian entries at the world championships. Even fewer know the second and third Russians on the domestic ladder. Or the real contenders at each weight. Maybe based on history, fans know beating a Russian or Iranian probably means you’re in the hunt for a gold medal. 

    All of this to say, I’m not sure my old high school teammates, the ones that only tune in for the NCAA finals, the Olympics, and maybe a random college dual, necessarily care if Kyle Snyder meets Sadualev. If Kyle Snyder wins Olympic gold…great we’re happy and he probably beat some really good opponents along the way. 

    Interest in international wrestling has grown thanks to organizations like InterMat, FloWrestling, USA Wrestling, and UWW. There is more information and content related to wrestlers like Sadulaev or Sidakov than in past generations, so more people care - but at the same time, not enough to make an asterisk discussion any sort of a real talking point. Maybe to the select few hardcore international fans. 

    Part of me hates writing this article a month out from the Olympic Games as a lot has to be contested on the mat before we even have to consider putting American Olympic gold medals into a historical perspective. The competitor in me thinks if we’re focusing on opponents that aren’t at the Games or how the public perceives a win, then we’re overlooking the Japanese or Iranian foes that will be in Paris. As if my or your opinions on the subject have a real impact on the way that Dake, Amit Elor, or Kamal Bey prepares for Paris, but I am superstitious like that. 

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