Four years ago, India celebrated Sushil Kumar‘s Bronze medal, after his medal hopes had initially been extinguished in the first round of the competition itself. Sushil lost to Andriy Stadnik in his first bout; however, with Andriy making it to the finals, Sushil entered into the ‘repechage’ system, and made full use of it to grab a Bronze for himself. Otar Tushishvili of Georgia also won himself a Bronze medal in the very same category, beating Cuba’s Geandry Garzon, who had come through the repechage himself. This was not just for the Men’s 66 kg category that Sushil Kumar was a part of, but across all categories in wrestling. So, why exactly did two Bronze medals go out in the same event for the first time in the history of Olympic wrestling?
Here’s why. For the first time ever, the IOC introduced a knock-out format for the competition, wherein the wrestlers would be pit against each other in a randomised manner in the first round. All rounds, including the first, would comprise purely of knock-out competition, with the winner progressing to the next round. This led to concerns over two top contenders crossing paths in the very first round, thereby denying one of them a fair shot at a medal, if the losing wrestler in each game was immediately knocked out. After all, nobody really wants to see Federer battle Nadal in the opening round of Wimbledon, do they?
So, how does the repechage system work? Under this system, all wrestlers who lose to the eventual finalists are placed in two pools, grouped with respect to which finalist they lost out to. In these pools, the wrestlers jostle in the order of their losses, i.e. the player who lost in qualification (if applicable) competes against the wrestler who lost in the 1/8 round, to the same finalist. The winner of this bout faces the person who lost out to the same finalist in the quarter-final. And the winner of this bout faces the losing semi-finalist, again, who lost out to the same finalist. Thus, the losing semi-finalist only has to compete in one bout to have his shot at the Bronze, whereas the wrestler who loses out early needs to come through two (or three, if the finalist came through the qualification round) matches to win the Bronze.
Of course, there are two finalists, and hence two sets of wrestlers going through the above process. And that, dear readers, is why two Bronze medals are handed out in Olympic wrestling. The repechage is also used in other Olympic events, such as track cycling, rowing, etc. but is usually used to determine additional finalists, and not to hand out an extra medal. Last time, Sushil made it through three repechage bouts to claim a Bronze. This time, we hope for Gold!