By: Alex Steen, Editor
Olympic wrestling will celebrate its 120th birthday in Rio this summer, but a country that only existed, in Olympic terms, from 1952 to 1988 still holds the record for most gold medals in the sport’s history. The Soviet Union so dominated freestyle and Greco that their 62 gold medals, across all styles, stands 12 ahead of the United States’ 50 for first all-time. This is even more impressive when you realize that third place on that list, which is a tie between Sweden, Japan and Turkey, has only 28 gold medals. The Soviet Union, which competed at just nine Summer Olympic Games due to a boycott in 1984, should stay in the top two for years to come. The country most likely to knock them off, after the U.S. moves past them, was a large part of the Soviet Union dominance. Russia, which began competing in its current form in 1996, has already racked up 25 gold medals and is shooting up the list, currently sitting seventh all-time.
On the Greco-Roman side, Soviet Dominance was almost instantaneous. At the 1950 world championships, the last held without them, Sweden won the team title and gold medals went to Sweden, Egypt, Hungary, Finland and Turkey. There were no championships held in 1951 and by the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, the Soviets were on top. They won the team title and four individual gold medals across the eight weights. No other country would win a Greco team title, at the Olympic Games or world championships, until 1984, when the Soviets boycotted. After the end of the Soviet Union, the Unified Team won in 1992, followed by Russia three more times before Poland defeated the Russians at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It was the first loss by a Soviet or Russian team since that 1950 world championships before the wrestling world changed.
In freestyle, the dominance took a bit longer. Though the Soviet Union debuted with two freestyle gold medals in 1952, they would not win a team title until 1959 and didn’t become an unstoppable force until 1969. Between 1969 and their last world championships under the Soviet flag in 1991, the Soviet Union won every freestyle team title, aside from 1984. In that stretch, across 21 tournaments, they never failed to win less than four individual gold medals and racked up a ridiculous 117 titles. The rest of the world only won 113 over that span of time and that includes the Los Angeles Olympics when the Soviets were not present. That means that from 1969 to 1991, the Soviet Union won both freestyle and Greco at every world championship and Olympic Games they attended!
The numbers are staggering and they will only get more so going forward. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, more wrestlers from that part of the world are getting their chance at Olympic gold. While there used to be one representative from the USSR at each weight, there can now be wrestlers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Moldova, Latvia, Tajikistan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Estonia. All but two of those countries has medaled in wrestling at the Olympic Games. Because some of these countries compete in the Asian Olympic Qualifying tournament while others compete in the European Olympic Qualifying tournament, it is possible that 15 wrestlers who would have once fallen under the same flag could find themselves in the same bracket at an Olympic Games someday.
Given the remarkable dominance the Soviet Union had over the sport, and that the former Soviet states now have, it is no surprise that the list of individuals who have excelled in wrestling on the Olympic stage is filled with Soviets and Russians. Of the eight wrestlers to accumulate three Olympic gold medals, there is one Soviet (Alexander Medved), one Russian (Buvaisar Satiev), one Uzbek (Artur Taymazov) and Alexander Karelin who wrestled for the Soviet Union, the Unified Team and Russia in his career. At least seven more Soviets won two Olympic gold medals during their careers. Seven of the ten men named to TOM’s Top 10 Greatest Freestyle Wrestling Olympians came from those countries. Three more made the Greco list. There are two more on the women’s freestyle list. These amazing individuals, along with so many more great wrestlers, have helped the USSR, the Unified Team and Russia combine to win 42 world level freestyle team titles. All other nations on earth have 15. The USSR/Russia/Unified Team have 52 Greco team titles to all others’ 37, but one of those others was claimed by former Soviet state Georgia.
The accolades go on and on, but one final fact that you need to know is that only once since the Soviet Union arrived at the Olympic Games in 1952 have they, or their former states, failed to win a gold medal in men’s freestyle at a Games they attended (1960). They have never failed to win a gold medal in Greco. This is what the United States, and other wrestling nations that aspire to be the best, are up against. When the athletes arrive in Rio this summer the specter of the Soviet Union, gone from the Olympics for 24 years now, will still loom large. Even countries that were never a part of the Soviet Union have imported talent from the area to bolster their chances on the mat. Everywhere you look you’ll see the influence of the USSR on Olympic wrestling. That isn’t going away anytime soon.