SPORTS

Russians win overall Olympic medal count, while Iran, Azerbaijan impress

08/12/2012 12:13 EDT | Updated 10/12/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - It wasn't surprising that the Russians dominated the overall medal count at the Olympic wrestling tournament.

But the results from London suggest that Iran and Azerbaijan are ready to push Russia, the sport's dominant force, over the next several years.

The Americans proved they don't plan on going anywhere either.

The Iranians won their first three Greco-Roman Olympic gold medals, following through after a strong showing at the 2011 world championships.

On Saturday night, Azerbaijan won as many Olympic golds, two, as it had ever won before in wrestling.

The U.S. scooped up two men's freestyle golds after Jake Varner at 96 kilograms joined Jordan Burroughs, the 74-kilogram champion, with a stirring win Sunday.

"After our success in the world championships last year, people in Iran were, still didn't believe in us. They thought we would get maybe a silver or a bronze," Iran national team coach Mohammad Bana said earlier this week. "I believe everyone is celebrating."

Bana credited Iran's rise in the Greco-Roman discipline to a decade spent developing Olympic champions like Hamid Soryan, who was fifth in the Beijing Games, and Omid Noroozi.

Azerbaijan's historic night came partly at the expense of the Russians, as 19-year-old star Toghrul Asgarov stunned four-time world champion Besik Kudukhov in the finals.

The U.S. improved on a weak showing in Beijing with four medals and an unforgettable performance by Burroughs, who emerged from London as perhaps the brightest star in the sport.

No one expects any of those nations to overtake the powerful Russians, winners of 11 total wrestling medals including four golds, by the time the Rio Games roll around in four years.

But there now appears to be more parity within the sport on an international level.

Iran had three golds and six total medals, while Azerbaijan had two golds among its seven medals.

"It is so hard to win," U.S. national team coach Zeke Jones said. "The world is more competitive than ever and more organized."

The U.S. improved on a weak showing in Beijing with four medals — two gold and two bronze — along an unforgettable performance by Burroughs, who emerged from London as the brightest star in the sport.

Burroughs survived an extraordinarily tense three-period battle with talented Russian Denis Tsargush before dominating Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi of Iran in the finals.

Burroughs beat Goudarzi with his "double leg" attack, then showed off the quick wit that's helped make him the new face of the sport in the U.S.

Burroughs said that if Britain's queen stepped out onto the mat, "I'd probably double-leg her."

Artur Taymazov of Uzbekistan shrugged off critics who said he couldn't win another gold at the age of 33, matching Russian legend Alexander Karelin's Olympic haul with his third straight gold at 120-kilogram freestyle.

Japan owned the women's freestyle as expected by winning three of the four gold medals handed out. Stars Kaori Icho and Saori Yoshida each won a record-setting third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

But Japan's dominance could prove troublesome for the sport's governing body as it attempts to convince the International Olympic Committee that women's wrestling now deserves seven weight classes in the Olympics, the same number as the men.

It's tough to argue the sport needs to expand its Olympic tournament when one nation can so easily dominate everyone else.

The Americans medaled in women's wrestling for the second straight Olympics, as Clarissa Chun joined men's freestyler Coleman Scott as bronze medallists .

But the Greco-Roman team, which won the world team title just five years ago, bombed out in a performance so bad that an overhaul of the entire program seems likely.

Freestyle heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev came agonizingly close to winning a bronze, losing with less than 10 seconds left in his final match. Jake Herbert lost to eventual gold medallist Sharif Sharifov in the quarterfinals on a curious and confusing scoring decision that the fuming Americans won't soon forget.

But the Americans doubled its medal count and its gold count in just four years.

The U.S. might never get back to the point where it'd be expected to medal in every weight class. But after a shaky start by the Greco-Romans had the American contingent deeply concerned, Burroughs and Varner came through.

"It means a lot to the program. One, it means we're making progress. Two, it seems that the plan is working," Jones said.

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