Norway Prepares for Olympic Qualifier

felix baldauf, norway, world olympic games qualifier
Felix Baldauf -- Photo: UWW

It all comes down to a single tournament, and it is not the one scheduled for early-August in Paris. The upcoming Olympic Games might be the main event of the year but a fair argument can be made that this week’s World Qualifier is, at the bare minimum least, nearly as difficult. Olympic medals — for individual athletes and national federations alike — are tantamount to precious capital. To earn one is potentially life-changing. The distinction forever adorns a wrestler’s resume, coupled in many cases with a financial reward; and governing bodies are emboldened to proclaim (and market) how one of their own managed to achieve such a high honor for all the world to see. There is simply no debate when discussing the prestige and implications associated with earning Olympic hardware.

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But this is precisely why just getting into the tournament is most crucial. It is also why the gathering on May 9-10 in Istanbul will bring to bear a competitive field of participants whose immense skill-sets are rivaled only by their desperation.

Team Norway will march into next weekend with what is, for them, a full roster, as they have not had a consistent competitor at 60 kilograms since ’16 Olympic bronze Stig-Andre Berge made appearances in the sport’s lowest weight category. Below are the five wrestlers NOR is sending to the mat at the World Olympic Games Qualifier — each of whom is considered a contender in his respective bracket.

Matthew 20 Graphic v2

NOR Roster – World OG Qualifier

67 kg: Haavard Joergensen — ’23 European Championships bronze, ’23 Nikola Petrov Memorial bronze, ’23 Grand Prix of Germany bronze, ’22 Thor Masters gold
77 kg: Per-Anders Kure — 2X Nordic Championships gold
87 kg: Exauce Mukubu — ’22 U23 World Champion, ’21 U20 World silver, ’23 U23 European Championships silver
97 kg: Felix Baldauf — ’17 European Championships gold, ’22 Grand Prix of Zagreb gold, ’23 Nikola Petrov Memorial gold, ’23 Grand Prix of Germany silver
130 kg: Oskar Marvik — ’21 World bronze, ’23 European Championships bronze, 2X U23 European Championships bronze

67 KG: Joergensen

Joergensen — who was a Cadet World bronze back in ’14 — has become one of Norway’s best overall competitors and a true elite-caliber athlete. He had already been consistent, performing well in most significant events — but last year he took a major step in his career. After placing 3rd at the Petrov in Bulgarian, Joergensen (who is the subject in an impending brief pre-Qualifier Q&A) had a breakout bronze-medal showing in the European Championships. His day had started with a nailbiting criteria decision against then-reigning World Champion Sebastian Nad (SRB) and ended with a win over ’22 Euro gold Murat Firat (TUR). Later in the summer, Jorgensen wrestled brilliantly in Germany to come away with his third bronze of the season. The byproduct of his campaign was supposed to result in a wrestle-off against well-decorated Morten Thoresen for the 67 kg spot at the ’23 Worlds — but en-route back to Oslo from Germany, Joergensen fell ill with a stomach virus and the Norwegian Federation opted not to postpone the meeting. Joergensen still competed in Belgrade, but at 72 kg.

A rough weight cut in the winter along with an eventual minor knee injury had temporarily stymied his progress entering ’24. He is healthy now, however, and receiving the opportunity to compete in Istanbul in place of Thoresen as the latter athlete was unable to secure a berth for NOR after appearing in both the Worlds and European Olympic Qualifier, respectively.

77 KG: Kure

Everyone remembers the inspiring story surrounding Kure’s comeback for the ’23 Worlds following a broken neck suffered just six months earlier in Bulgaria. That news traveled far and wide, even gaining a semblance of mainstream wrestling attention. The dogged determination to return so quickly endeared Kure to a new subset of Greco fans, but it also obscured how polished and experienced of a competitor he is. If anything, one unfortunate result of the injury was that Kure had begun the ’22-’23 season in strong fashion and it had seemed as though he was turning a corner in his viability on the top level. He was moving sharper and his execution from top par terre displayed more conviction — and then he had to fight like mad to heal, rehab, recover, and compete. Kure actually made a start at the Grand Prix of Germany in August, just five months removed from surgery. Fast-forward, and, ironically, his first match at the Worlds came against none other than Makhmudov. It was a competitive affair until a tenuous exchange saw Makhmudov capitalize and earn one of his five victories in the event.

After getting starts at Zagreb and Thor Masters to open ’24, Kure was tabbed by Norway for the European Qualifier last month in Baku, Azerbaijan. In his lone match of the tournament, he was edged on criteria (1-1) by Jonni Sarkkinen (FIN), and Sarkkinen subsequently went on a tear through the bracket to stamp down one of the two available available quotas at 77 (with two-time World champ Burhan Akbudak grabbing the other). There only so many instances in international Greco-Roman wrestling at which one could point towards momentum being a potential factor. The upcoming World Qualifier falls in this category. Kure has on occasion shown to be a momentum wrestler. One early win is all it might take for him to catch fire similar to how Sarkkinen did (at Kure’s his expense, no less) in Baku.

87 KG: Mukubu

Mukubu went from 77 to 82, briefly back down to 77, and has now firmly planted his flag at 87. He was perhaps at his most comfortable operating in the 82 kg range but, smartly, decided last year to commit to 87 since it is the Olympic weight. His is a profile that is well-known. Thanks to a combination of power, smarts, and youthful exuberance, Mukubu soared into the international consciousness after finishing runner-up at the ’21 Junior Worlds. The next year, he won it all on the U23 level. Splitting his time between age-group and Senior competition throughout last season, Mukubu was an undercover pick by many to seriously contend at the ’23 Belgrade Worlds but that tournament did not pan out for him. He then fought for bronze at the U23 World Championships and eventually finished 5th. This past winter, Mukubu had several impressive wins spread across Zagreb and the Euros but, again, trips to the podium eluded him.

The European Qualifier last month likewise did not end how he would have hoped — although he burst out of the gate quite well. Mukubu took out ’22 U23 World gold Marcel Sterkenburg (NED) and tough Lithuanian Martynas Nemesvicius in consecutive matches before being ousted by Milad Alirzaev (AIN), who wound up qualifying. While 87 is a daunting bracket coming up this week, Mukubu is certainly still anticipated to be in the running. He has had success against several of the bracket’s main antagonists and, on paper, matches up nicely opposite just about everyone else. Mukubu’s blend of explosiveness and versatility is unique and challenging to stop. He is likely a competitor the others in this weight class would prefer to avoid.

97 kg: Baldauf

Counting both domestic and international competition, Baldauf had logged a lot of matches in ’23 prior to the World Championships. Part of that was the Norwegians having for themselves a healthy slate of opportunities, and the other part was simply due to Baldauf advancing deep into most every event he had entered. It was a successful international campaign for the 29-year-old, even if he would eventually fall short of medaling (and qualifying 97) in Belgrade. He had placed 5th in Zagreb, won the Petrov, took 5th at the Hungarian Grand Prix, was silver in Germany, and went 2-1 at the Worlds with his one loss coming against ’21 World champ/Tokyo Olympic bronze Mohammadhadi Saravi (IRI). It was not the easiest pill for Baldauf to swallow, for he had strung together such an encouraging run of performances all year long and it had felt like ’23 would welcome in his full-on breakthrough. The loss to Saravi was made all the more bitter once the Iranian was bounced in the next round by Gabriel Rosillo (CUB), who of course would go on to defeat multi-time World/’16 Olympic champ Artur Aleksanyan (ARM) in the finals.

The qualifier for Europe in April might not have eased his frustrations. Baldauf started off by essentially shutting down ’19 U23 World gold Arvi Savolainen (FIN) by a score of 7-1. From whistle to whistle, Baldauf was in control and never seriously threatened, this despite the brutish skill of Savolainen. But in the quarterfinal round, a resurgent Robert Kobliashvili (GEO) decisioned Baldauf 3-1 — and just as it had happened to Mukubu, Baldauf’s vanquisher won in the semifinal to take one of the two tickets to Paris. However, a pro’s pro is Baldauf. He has scraped off the effects from Baku and is being positioned as one of the featured players heading into Istanbul. 97 might just be the best bracket in the tournament when you look at all of the recognizable names on the entry list. Even among such a large group of decorated athletes, Baldauf fits right in and is indeed capable of earning one of the three remaining Olympic spots.

130 kg: Marvik

The past few seasons have been Marvik’s best on the Senior circuit, led obviously by his run to World bronze in ’21. Last year, he placed 3rd at the European Championships and has generally performed strongly in every event since (including at the Euros this past February, where he came in 5th). The book has long been out on Marvik. For just about seven full years, he has been established as one of the better heavyweights in the sport, which is saying something considering that his own continent features the vast majority of that weight category’s most accomplished competitors. In a style of wrestling where imposing one’s will is seen as a pre-requisite, Marvik is a master pusher who likes to batter opponents into taking back-steps or going off-balance, and very few even bother to try and hang with him in the tie-ups while they wait with bated breath for passivity calls.

Lately, the big man has faced some adversity. For starters, he was downed in the opening round at the European Olympic Qualifier by Beka Kandelaki (AZE). Most recently, Marvik has had to deal with Anti-Doping Norway, who has cited him for what is basically a “whereabouts failure” in which athletes are to check in through the digital portal via either smartphone or computer to declare their location/availability. It should be noted that he is not suspected of any sort of violation. This ridiculous set of circumstances was brought on by nothing more than a technical error in the app’s system. Marvik had already been tested and cleared a sufficient number of times during the same time period, and he enjoys the full backing of the Norwegian Federation while this clown show is ongoing. Nevertheless, it has been a distraction. Marvik says that he has managed to forge ahead in preparation for Istanbul. Given his track record and the fact that he is clearly a top-tier athlete, there is no reason to doubt him.

2024 World OG Qualifier Schedule

All times +7 hours ET
— Streaming live on UWW+ and FLOWrestling (USA)

Istanbul, TUR

Thursday, May 9
10:00am — Qualification rounds
6:00pm — Semifinals (winners secure Olympic berths for their countries)

Friday, May 10
10:00am — Repechage
4:45pm — Bronze medal rounds
8:30pm — True-3rd matches (winners secure Olympic berths for their countries)

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