flag bearer

Words: Massaer Ndiaye

Photography: Nils Ericson

Teddy Riner, a hulking 6’8” and 315 pounds, peers through the doors of the judo facilities at INSEP, the French National Institute of Sport and Physical Education, on the eastern edge of Paris. Riner is an imposing presence and a dominating force in judo, a sport that thrives on domination. Top ranked in his weight class (100 kg+), he is an eight-time heavyweight world champion and two-time Olympic medalist: gold in London in 2012, and bronze in Beijing in 2008. Known by his legions of fans as Teddy Bear, or Big Ted, he has an admittedly obsessive training streak.

Walking to his place on the blue-and-yellow tatami mat, Riner is the big brother who jokes with junior team members and mocks their haircuts. He is the size of an NBA power forward with football pads on, but he inhabits his magnitude gracefully. With his chest out and shoulders relaxed, his infectious smile lightens up the tense training atmosphere. Judo pros Audrey Tcheuméo, a French women’s under-78 kg Olympic medalist of Cameroonian descent, and Loïc Piétri, the under-81 kg world champion, take a break from their rigorous training to laugh at Riner’s jokes. He is the concerned friend who worries about recovering teammates, asking how long until they’re back on the mat. Wearing a Parisian-blue judogi, untucked and unfastened, the affable 27-year-old superstar treats everyone in attendance like family.

It’s four days into a two-week spring holiday, which means that most of the students enrolled at INSEP, which houses the largest concentration of high-caliber athletes in France, have already left to be with their families before returning for a heavy summer of training. Not Riner. His left shoulder has been bothering him—a lot. Since early January, a dislodged piece of cartilage has been pushing on a tendon at the top of his left arm, so he’s been doubling up on workout sessions for three straight weeks to gain strength and test his pain threshold.

France regards Riner as its best Olympic hope in Rio de Janeiro, but because of his injury, he won’t participate in the World Judo Championships this year, despite winning gold medals every year there since 2007. The fact that he was even considering shoulder surgery made national news, since an operation and the subsequent recovery would keep him out of the Olympics entirely. When asked if the rumors about shoulder surgery are true, he says, “Oh, no! I will be one hundred percent. Even if I’m hurt, I know I can put the pain aside. I’ll be ready. No doubt.”


Still, it’s not obvious that he’ll be able to power through. Earlier that very morning, during a randori—a sparring session with the goal of working on attack strategies—Riner’s partner du jour, the Moroccan champion El Mehdi Malki, managed to put the giant on his back after a well-placed osotogari (a classic over-the-shoulder throw); Riner remained down for two excruciating minutes, recovering on the floor while he gained back feeling in his hips.

Malki and Riner had started the randori without a proper warmup. Immediately, the fighters locked into a power struggle. Riner, unfocused, went for a reckless attack that left his right leg open. Malki pushed back until Riner’s knee twisted so far that the hushed room seemed convinced he’d need medical assistance. When Riner remained on the mat, Malki looked terrified—had he injured the greatest living judoka?

But Riner picked himself up, and spent the rest of the session making sure Malki knew what he was dealing with. “I’m a competitor,” he says. “I stepped my level up, and thought, ‘You’re going to eat it.’” For the next two hours, Riner kept screaming “golden score!”—in English—to his training staff, urging them to give the point to whoever made his opponent fall. He won by a large margin.

As is often the case with underexposed disciplines, judo looks to the Olympics as its highest stage. Its Olympic debut was in Tokyo in 1964, and though it was suspended for the 1968 games, judo has remained in the Olympic program since Munich 1972. A Japanese art of adaptation, judo tends to focus on each fighter’s ability to counter every attack, transforming an opponent’s move into a weapon. It is as physical as rugby yet as strategic as chess. After Japan, the birthplace of the sport, France holds the second-largest Olympic judo medals collection, with 47. In the past two decades, the French have bred champions at a higher rate than any other country.


In Rio, Riner is heavily favored to be the opening ceremony’s French flag bearer, over superstars like NBA champion Tony Parker and Olympic swimming gold-medalist Florent Manaudou. As the most decorated athlete in judo, Riner has little to prove. But if he were to carry the Tricolor, there is a much larger symbolism at work: in a nation that is just coming to grips with the poor integration of its suburban youth—of which the vast majority are of African and West Indian descent—Riner is a way forward.

The son of Moise and Marie-Pierre Riner, both Guadeloupian immigrants, Teddy, his brother Moise Jr., and his parents left the island of Les Abymes for France in the early ’90s, before his second birthday. Growing up in Paris, Riner was perpetually overgrown and hyperactive. His mother signed him up for every sport imaginable at the famous Aquaboulevard, a sports and entertainment complex in the southern 15th arrondissement. Riner played several sports before settling on judo; he loved that judo was an individual game, and in it he found instant success. He entered INSEP at age 15.

Photographs of Riner now adorn many of the walls at the facilities. A majestic photograph of his medal ceremony in London in 2012 welcomes visitors on the eastern corridor, while captures of many of his championship ippons are displayed in the dojo. INSEP is France’s most visible exercise in meritocracy, and Riner is a product of that institution. His unequivocal pride in his French identity, and his profound understanding of the historical context of his role, make him a perfect figurehead for the next generation.

On campus, he’s like a presidential candidate working the campaign trail. “It’s very important that everyone here feels like they can get to me,” he says. “I grew up here. When I arrived at INSEP, Ladji Doucouré was a big superstar. He had no ego. I hadn’t won anything, but I could go into his or Pascal Gentil’s room and just chill and have fun.” Doucouré is the Malian-Senegalese two-time world champion in 110m hurdles, and Gentil a two-time Olympic bronze medalist in taekwondo. “They were world champi-ons, taking a 15-year-old under their wing, making sure I was doing well, giving me advice. I can never forget that.”

Riner’s success has to do with his talent and size, but it also has to do with his good nature and sense of humor, as if he were the Shaquille O’Neal of martial arts. He has earned a special spot in the heart of many French citizens, regardless of age; his work ethic, paired with his easygoing nature, make him the most popular athlete in France since Zinedine Zidane.

Powerful corporations are eager to capitalize on Riner’s image and personality. He has been featured in advertisements for companies like Adidas, Powerade, and Renault. Brioche Pasquier, one of the largest bakery companies in Europe, produces an ongoing campaign with Riner where he plays up his gentle giant persona, charmingly interacting with cute kids who climb all over him and fell him with their judo moves (the tagline: “Be-ing a child is a sport”). As the father of a two-year-old boy, Eden, Riner asks advertising agencies not to pitch him campaigns where he is cast as the tough guy, a role he has a hard time pretending to occupy. teddy_riner-1387

Yet he’s the finest tactician on any tatami. Franck Chambilly and Christian Chaumont (his coaches on the national team at INSEP and at the club level in Leval-lois, respectively) work in tandem with an extended staff to make sure Riner is always operating at the highest level. Included in that crew is Nico Kanning, a German judoka who is Riner’s official sparring partner. Essentially Kanning falls, and falls again, and the team analyzes those falls for hours a day, every day. Kanning is imperative to the training process, helping Riner focus on the most important aspects of his fight strategy. “I need [Nico] around me,” says Riner. “He gives me the best information, and he’s not afraid to fall, like some others. He lets me know when I’m not executing. He’ll come with me to Rio.”

Riner’s national coach knows that these months of prep-aration are key to Olympic success in Brazil. “Everyone believes that all he needs to do to win a gold medal is to step on the tatami in Rio,” Chambilly says. “But if we come this unfocused,” referring to that morning’s weak spar with Malki, “we lose in the first round. I’m here to make sure he’s untouchable.” Riner’s first match of the XXXI Olympiad is scheduled for Carioca Arena 2 on August 12. “I’m filled with doubt,” he says. “When I haven’t fought in a while, some questions arise. When I enter a dojo, I know they’re all out to get me. My reaction is to invite them all to try.”

For those who will come of age in a post-Riner era, the meaning of French identity will be very different than for the current generation. If INSEP is one of the only institutions to blindly accept and adopt the country’s most promising athletes, regardless of their backgrounds, Riner is the man that France can point to when they want to show a perfect example of a country that cherishes its sons—as long as they give enough back to it.