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Lopez grapples with history in quest for fifth Olympic gold | The Express Tribune


HAVANA:

In the history of the modern Olympic Games, dating all the way back to 1896, only one athlete, Dutch speedskater Ireen Wust, has managed to win five golds in five successive Games.

Cuban wrestler Mijain Lopez, however, is looking to match her achievement when he lands in Paris in the summer for what will be his sixth Games, even though he has not competed for over two years.

“I’m going to do it,” the ever-confident Lopez told AFP.

“The fatigue is there, the body aches are there, so the mind has to be strong, the motivation has to be even stronger,” he said, dripping with perspiration after an intense three-hour training session on the mats at the Cerro Pelado high-performance centre in Havana.

If the perspiration and the inspiration do the job in Paris, the 1.98m (6ft 5in) Greco-Roman wrestler will move ahead of such luminaries as the Americans Carl Lewis (long jump), Michael Phelps (swimming, 200m medley) and Al Oerter (discus), Denmark’s Paul Elvstrom (sailing) and Japan’s Kaori Icho (wrestling), all of whom won individual gold in four different editions of the Games.

When, just shy of his 39th birthday, the Cuban giant overcame the Georgian Iakobi Kajaia in the 130kg competition in the Covid-delayed Tokyo Games three years ago, it was widely expected to be his swansong. He has not competed since.

But the 41-year-old — he turns 42 on August 20, just after the Paris Games end — is determined to grapple again, not just with his opponents but with his own advancing years.

The first battle he has had to fight was with himself, getting his weight stabilised below the required 130kg. He is still a few kilos above but the training sessions are paying off.

“Confidence” is his watchword, both in his abilities and in his coach, Raul Trujillo, who guided him to gold in Rio and Tokyo.

Lopez reckons a fifth Olympic title “is an attainable goal”.

“It’s just a question of listening to the coach and trusting all his training plans,” he says. “Not to injure myself … and then I’ll go to Paris to fight.”

Lopez’s Olympic journey began in the 120kg class in Athens in 2004 when he had just turned 22. He topped his preliminary pool but went out to the eventual winner Khasan Baroyev in the quarter-final.

The Athens defeat was the only one in 18 Olympic matches for Lopez, who has also been flag-bearer for the Cuban delegation at the last four opening ceremonies.

Four years later in Beijing he turned the tables on Baroyev — who was later stripped of his silver for doping — and repeated that success in London four years later.

Lopez went on to take gold in the 130kg category in Rio in 2016, where his victory over Turkey’s Riza Kayaalp was celebrated with a joyous salsa shimmy on the mat, and again in Tokyo.

In Paris, everything will come down to the small details.

“The preparation is going well,” he insists.

“I think we’ve achieved exactly what we set out to do.

“We spent two months in training centres in Croatia and Bulgaria, where I was lucky enough to be able to train with top athletes.”

It was an opportunity to test himself against some of the best wrestlers in his category, such as China’s Meng Lingzhe and Egypt’s Mohamed Abdellatif, ranked fourth and fifth respectively in the world.

These training sessions in Europe, in January and February, marked what he calls “Mijain’s flight to Paris”.

“It gave me the joy I was looking for, I feel happy”, he says.

Preparations will continue in the seaside resort of Varadero, 150km east of Havana before the trek to the Champ de Mars Arena where Lopez will attempt to lift himself alongside Wust in the pantheon of Olympic legends.

“Everything will happen as normal,” he says breezily. “The truth is out there on the mat and, I tell you, I’m going to do it.”

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