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Foes and fans floored by Big Teddy Riner

PETER HANLON
Last updated 16:34 04/08/2012
Big Teddy
BIG WIN: Teddy Riner of France celebrates his gold medal in the Men's +100 kg Judo on Day 7 of the London Olympics.

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On the website of the French sports daily L'Equipe, there is a video that shows Usain Bolt sitting beside a running track in Kingston, an open laptop on his knee.

"Hi Usain Bolt, I am Teddy Riner, judo champion," the face on the screen says. "Do you think you can beat me in 60 metres challenge?"

Bolt laughs incredulously, turns to a figure out of shot and asks: "Is he serious man?"

"Yes," comes the reply. "Look at his eyes."

Waiting at the entrance to the judo hall, hands on hips and shifting his 208-centimetre, 132-kilogram frame from foot to foot, Riner wears a game face that could stare down an attack dog.

There are weightier propositions in judo - such as Guam's 218kg mini-planet, Ricardo Blas Jnr - but nobody is bigger than "Big Teddy". Never has a man in a dressing gown been so frightening.

Overnight Riner worked his way through the big boys of the men's 100kg-plus division with the cool, clinical precision of someone trained in the art of subduing the enemy.

He now has an Olympic gold medal to go with his five world titles; still only 23, he has time to become a colossal figure on sport's greater landscape.

"Whatever will happen, I think for the French people, he is the king for the Games," said Marie-Jose Perec, the famous 400-metres runner who, like Riner, holds France and their native Guadeloupe dear.

In the tunnel beneath the scaffolded stands on Friday afternoon, they exchanged a beaming, exultant high five.

"Because he's like a big bear, you want to hold him like a baby," Perec said of Riner's popularity, which made the Excel Centre feel like Roland Garros, and had fans of all nations roaring for him.

"And because he is just a very, very nice person." And then she purred: "I don't know for other people, but I lurve him!"

Riner's quest for what he calls "the beautiful ippon" - the game-ending throw that puts an opponent on his back, translated from Japanese as "straight to the point" - will have to wait until another Olympic stage.

His approach in dismissing five opponents en route to the podium's top step was conservative aggression; three warning penalties against Alexander Mikhaylin won him the final and irked the Russian, but his mission was complete.

With a champion's smile encasing his sculpted beard, the swirls and stars etched into his shaved head by an athletes' village barber seemed a justifiable excess.

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A German who had beaten him in 2006 - when he was still "Little Ted" - had bowed out in the semis, leaving Riner facing Mikhaylin, whose three previous encounters with the Frenchman had taught him only that he couldn't beat him with a plank.

Riner has lost only twice since winning an apprentice's bronze in Beijing, the latter of those controversially.

His celebrity in a country that boasts 550,000 registered judokas is immense. "He's an entertainer, he loves to entertain," said Karim Ben Ismail, one of six L'Equipe journalists covering his Olympic exploits. Yes, that's six. And three photographers.

At a time when papers the world over are cutting back on newsprint, L'Equipe last week devoted eight broadsheet pages to a life-size, fold-out Riner poster. Not even the bean-counters can say no to Teddy.

As icons do, he has changed the face of heavyweight judo.

The giants of their sport have always had curiosity value, but there's only so much you can watch of men who look like they're en route to the bathroom groping and grappling, tearing robes free of belts and exposing their bulging bellies.

Ismail notes that Riner moves like a lightweight. "He brings glitter to the heavyweights."

The Polish coach of his first-round victim Janusz Wojnarowicz laughed as he offered his appraisal of the Olympic champion.

"I think he better dancer." Wojnarowicz spoke like a man privileged to at least have played a part in Riner's golden story. "For me he was too strong, too fast. He is great fighter."

In a sport where technique triumphs over size and brute power, Riner is the master. He develops new grips like Shane Warne invented mystery balls. Wojnarowicz was flummoxed. "I cannot catch my grip," he lamented. "I never experience anything like this before."

Born on Guadeloupe, he has been a Parisian since four months old but is celebrated in all French territories, and now in London too.

More than 120 Riner-nuts journeyed to England from their Leeward Island to see their man reach his destiny first hand. His energy as a child was inexhaustible.

He rope-climbed, ran, jumped, played soccer. His motivation in turning to judo is revealing. "Football is with a team," he recently told the BBC. "If the team is bad, I lose. And me, I don't like to lose."

His flamboyance has at times rubbed against the grain of a discipline steeped in tradition, with a strong moral compass of respect.

A theatrical celebration of a tournament victory last year upset the head of the judo federation.

Riner responded by asking if he was a black belt. On Friday, as a defeated Mikhaylin waved him away, he essayed a jig that did Jo-Wilfried Tsonga proud, sank to his knees, rocked back and roared.

Wojnarowicz spoke for all of judo's beaten big boys.

"I tried, he was better, I lose."

- Fairfax Media

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