France pins judo hopes on teenager

Aug. 06, 2008, 10:12 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) Teddy Riner has taken a liking to Beijing, where people have started calling him ``The Great Wall.''

The French media are building him up as their country's greatest athlete since football's Zinedine Zidane. He's on just about everybody's short list of athletes most likely to go home with a gold. And he's only 19.

``I can't say I have waited for this day,'' Riner said Wednesday. ``I don't feel like I have waited at all.''

Riner's ascent to the top of judo has been as stunning as his physique. He stands 204 centimeters tall and weighs 129 kilograms (6-foot-8, 285 pounds), towering over most of his opponents.

Pushed into the sport at age six by his parents, who were worried that he needed to find a focus for his energies, the Guadeloupe-born, Paris-raised Riner in 2006 won the European and world titles, then the next year did it again - at 18 - on the senior level, becoming the youngest man to win the world heavyweight judo championship.

He did it in style, too, beating two former world champions along the way. When he fights next Friday, he said, look for more of the same.

``Everything is perfect,'' he said. ``The food, the atmosphere. I am completely ready.''

So are the French fans.

A decade ago, men's judo was all about a rivalry between French double Olympic gold medalist David Douillet and Japanese world champion Shinichi Shinohara. Douillet, one of France's most respected sports figures, beat Shinohara on points in a close match for the Sydney gold in 2000, and also won a controversial decision over him at the world championship final in 1997 in Paris.

Both athletes have retired. But the rivalry hasn't died.

Many Japanese have never forgotten Shinohara's disappointments, and are hoping for a touch of revenge from Satoshi Ishii, Japan's national champion. The French, meanwhile, simply have been looking to regain the premier Olympic judo gold.

Overall, Japan is always the team to beat.

The Japanese have 31 golds in judo to 10 for France, which is its closest rival. The Japanese have never failed to win at least one gold since judo became an official sport in Tokyo in 1964. They won a record eight golds in Athens.

But Douillet, who is in Beijing to watch the competition, said Riner has given Japan cause to worry.

``When I quit the sport, they thought that they could win everything, that they would dominate everything,'' he told The Associated Press. ``Now, they have reason to be concerned. France has returned.''

Riner said he is taking no chances. He is skipping the games' opening ceremony, and will be spending most of the next week training or quietly watching DVDs.

``I don't want to waste my energy standing around for three hours,'' he said of the opening ceremony, which will be held Friday. ``I am in my own bubble, and I need to stay there.''

He boasted, however, that he is ``happy to take on anyone.''

Ishii, who is known as something of a brawler, is a classic Japanese judo star, with shaved head, cauliflower ears and a thick, low-to-the-ground build. He also knows a little something about being a prodigy - he was Japan's youngest national champion when he won two years ago, also at 19.

But Ishii has never won Olympic gold, and is largely unproven in major international meets.

He erupted into tears after winning his berth by taking the national title in April, vowing to uphold his country's honor by winning in Beijing.

``The outcome is everything,'' he said.