Riner faces Inoue moment in London
Updated: Friday, 13 Jul 2012 15:03
History will cast a shadow over French giant Teddy Riner when he steps onto the mat at the ExCel Arena in London's Docklands on 3 August as favourite in the men's Olympics heavyweight judo category.
The giant 23-year-old Guadeloupe-born star of the French team will be aiming to win his first Olympic gold medal at the second attempt, having claimed a bronze in Beijing four years ago.
Since then, when even at only 19 years of age he was already world champion, Riner has been the dominant force in heavyweight judo.
He has added four more world titles -- in the heavyweight division in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and in the openweight category in 2008 -- to become the most decorated fighter in the sport's history.
Such is his dominance that even Japanese great Yasuhiro Yamashita said last year it would be "impossible" to beat Riner who will become a "superstar" after the Games.
Standing at more than two metres and weighing in at around 140kg of solid muscle, Riner is an imposing sight and watching closely the eyes of his opponents as they grip up with "Teddy Bear", as he is affectionately known, it is often possible to see resignation or even fear.
Few fighters genuinely believe they can beat him.
But as the man himself has admitted, winning world titles does not compare to holding an Olympic gold medal in his hands and it is that, which he describes as his "dream", which is motivating him most.
Yet Riner has the weight of a nation's expectations on his shoulders and unenviable pressure to produce the goods.
It is a situation that faced one of his predecessors as the major star in the sport, Japan's Kosei Inoue.
The former light-heavyweight was the prodigy of world judo from his explosion on the scene at the 1999 world championships, which he won, through the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and two more world titles before lining up in Athens to defend his Games crown.
Then, apart from a pair of low-key defeats to the awkward Hungarian former light-heavyweight Olympic and world champion Antal Kovacs and one to Japanese heavyweight Shinichi Shinohara at the All-Japan Championships, Inoue was virtually unbeatable.
Yet he succumbed to nerves in Athens and failed to sleep the night before his competition before jogging up and down the mat on the morning of his big day in an almost trance-like daze.
He failed to muster his famous explosiveness and was stunned in the quarter-finals by unfancied Dutchman Elco van der Geest.
He had not lost a top-level individual international bout for more than five years.
That was the beginning of the end for Inoue, still only 26 at the time, who missed a couple of years through injury and then came back at heavyweight, under much pressure from the Japanese hierarchy to do so.
But despite winning the prestigious Paris Grand Slam in 2007, he lost to Riner later that year in the World Championships and failed to qualify for the Olympics the next year, after which he retired.
Before Athens, Inoue was viewed as the greatest fighter since Yamashita and was seen as almost unbeatable.
It is a position that Riner finds himself in now, the greatest since Inoue and an overwhelming favourite to land Olympic gold.
Like Inoue he has been essentially unbeatable since the last Olympics -- barring a controversial loss to Japan's Daiki Kamikawa in the openweight world championships in Tokyo in 2010.
What remains to be seen is whether Riner can handle the pressure and expectation better than Inoue did eight years ago and take his rightful place atop the winner's podium in London.