Women wrestlers look forward to Olympics

Olympic wrestling is no longer just a man’s world. The athletes at the 2002 Women’s World Wrestling Championships hope to keep it that way. Two years before the debut of women’s wrestling on the Olympic program, the latest championships served as an important stepping stone toward the 2004 Games and the efforts to give the women’s sport a permanent Olympic spot after Athens. «I want that Olympic gold,» said American wrestler Tina George from Cleveland who competes in the 55-kilogram category. George has already moved to the Olympic wrestling training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But there is no guarantee that women’s wrestling will remain in the Olympics for the 2008 Games in Beijing, said organizers at the championships in Halkida, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of Athens. The tournament ended Sunday. Japan was the only country to win more than one gold medal (it won three). The International Olympic Committee is under pressure to pare down the number of sports and Athens will be a key test of the future of women’s wrestling. «The IOC decided to have women participate in (wrestling) in the Olympics and today.. . we are trying for something better,» said Raphael Martinetti, president of the World Wrestling Organization. «The first priority for us is to preserve these categories.» For the athletes, however, the priority is their new Olympic stature nearly two decades after women began to wrestle in international competition. «I think that it’s really awesome that some countries that we have never even seen before are really putting a conscious effort into their women’s wrestling and develop it,» said Sara McMann from Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, who competes for the US team in the 63-kilogram category. Japan’s Saori Yoshida, who won the gold medal in the freestyle wrestling 55-kilogram category at this year’s Asian Games, has been waiting for years to make the Olympics. «Before, we always wanted that it would be a major sport. Now it is included. Everything is forgotten and I am happy,» said Yoshida, who defeated George, the American wrestler, in the finals in Halkida. Although the crowds were small, the enthusiasm was high at times. Two men dressed in traditional Japanese costumes banged drums as the Japanese team entered the arena. Terry Steiner, the US national women’s coach, believes the women athletes still haven’t earned «total respect» in a traditionally male sport. «In the USA, I think the coaches there think it should be a man’s sport forever because it’s been a man’s sport from the beginning of time,» Steiner said. «We have a lot of attitude to change.» Although only four weight events will be held during the Olympics, the international federation is using seven at the world championships. The next women’s world championship – the last before the Olympics – is scheduled for September 2003 in New York.

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