International Wrestling

Do Defending Champs Perform Better at World Championships or Olympic Games?

Olympic Wrestling

By: Alex Steen, Editor

In wrestling, the world championships and Olympic Games have a lot in common.  They both feature the same styles of wrestling, they each serve as the yearly championship for the sport and you see a lot of the same names winning and medaling in both.  However, there are some differences too.  The world championships feature larger brackets due to the Olympics’ stringent qualifying process, though that was not always the case.  Worlds also now features weight classes that are not wrestled at the Olympic Games.  The Olympics, on the other hand, is a much bigger stage.  A gold medal there is worth more money, typically, than a world championship gold.  Obviously, it takes place once every four years so wrestlers get fewer chances to win it in a career.

One theory I have seen advanced, in this Olympic year, is that past world championship performance is not necessarily the best predictor of Olympic success.  The thinking is that the Olympics is held in higher esteem so wrestlers, and wrestling federations, put more focus on it.  Because of that, the theory goes, an athlete may win a world title, but it will be much more difficult to repeat at the Olympics the following year.  If this theory is true, I would expect the percentage of wrestlers that successfully defend their world championship gold at an Olympics held the next year to be less than those that successfully defend at the next year’s world championships.

To avoid the last two boycotted Olympics, I started looking at the numbers from 1985 and used men’s freestyle only.  The test was simple, for each Olympic weight I marked down how many times a defending champion successfully defended their title and how many times they medaled, at the same weight, at the world level championship the following year.  I then broke down those performances into those that occurred at Olympic Games and those that were at world championships.  The results seem to be the opposite of what the initial theory would expect.

  Defended Title Medaled
World Championships 42/189 22.2% 72/189 38.1%
Olympic Games 21/59 35.6% 34/59 57.6%


As you can see in the table above, wrestlers who win a gold medal are more likely to defend their title, and more likely to medal, at the next world level championship if that championship is the Olympic Games.  Over half of the defending world champions from the years before an Olympic Games have medaled at the Olympics the following year since 1985.  By comparison, a gold medalist at the Olympics or world championships only medals 38.1% of the time the following year if he is headed to a world championships.  The ratio is similar for winning another title.

This seems to refute the idea that past world championship performance has less to do with predicting Olympic success than most would think.  It suggests that Olympic preparations are often a multiple year plan, or, at least, two years, for wrestlers and wrestling federations.  It is also likely that we are seeing the pull of the Olympics in these results.  If someone wins a world championship and the Olympic Games is the next year, they are probably less likely to retire than if the Olympics is several years away.  We are probably also seeing that, if a wrestler is going to take time off, they are more likely to do it just after an Olympics than in the year before one.

Nothing is guaranteed on the mat, no matter what tournament you’re wrestling in, but as the Olympics approaches it appears safe to use last year’s world championship results as a starting point when trying to figure out who will win.  It may be less of a good idea to use results from the 2013 and 2014 worlds, but without running the numbers it is difficult to say.  I doubt there is such a thing as a weak world champion in the modern era, but if you win one the year before an Olympics, you deserve to be on the short list of Olympic gold medal contenders and the numbers back that up!

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