LONDON (Reuters) - The roar from the crowd when France’s Teddy Riner was crowned Olympic heavyweight judo champion at the London Games on Friday was so loud he probably felt it could be heard in Paris.
A hero in his homeland, the 10,000-strong crowd at London’s ExCel Centre, awash with red, white and blue tricolour flags of France, chanted his name in the sort of reception usually reserved for pop stars.
“He’s worked for four years and today he’s won gold,” Lorine Dopierala, 12, her face painted with the colours of the tricolour. “All the French people were together behind Teddy Riner,” she told Reuters.
“We’re proud today. He’s the best judo player in the world. Incredible,” said her father.
There’s no doubting Riner’s popularity or his ability. At 23, he already has won five world championships and has been beaten just once since he missed out on the title in Beijing.
His route to gold on Friday looked almost inevitable, brushing off opponents who seemed more interested in not being unceremoniously thrown to the mat than trying to beat the world champion.
The support he received was also unsurpassed during seven days of judo in London. A mere glimpse of the 6ft 8ins (2.04) giant was enough to send the adoring French supporters into delirious whoops and screams of “Teddy Teddy” that got more deafening as the day wore on.
“It didn’t feel like I was in London but in Paris,” said Riner, whose nickname is “Teddy Bear”.
Many of the favourites for judo gold medals have faltered during a week of competition, but Riner said he was determined to stay focused.
“The final was difficult, but from the beginning I felt it would go my way. It’s mine, it’s my day, it’s my medal,” he told reporters. “I think I will sleep with this medal because for four years it has been long and hard.”
Not only currently the best judoka in the world, he is now en route to becoming one of the greatest ever.
“Riner stands on the cusp of breaking all judo records, and it seems like there is nothing that can stop him,” said the International Judo Federation, the sports governing body.
The shaven-headed Riner, who conveys a laid back persona despite his obvious brute strength, told reporters he now planned a break of three to four months, or perhaps as long as six.
“I want to relax in the sun in Guadalupe and to do all the things that were forbidden for me, just like jet-ski,” he said.
Meanwhile all his rivals are left to ponder and plot just how they can stop him at the Games in Brazil in four years time.
“Nobody is unbeatable,” said Brazilian bronze medallist Rafael Silva. “I can work on my weaknesses, hopefully fight him and beat him in Rio.”
Editing by Ed Osmond