Wrestling with the I.O.C: a shortsighted, tragic decision

By: Greg Halvorson

Stunned; stunned, flabbergasted, and fit to be tied — this was (is) my reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport. Wrestling; not ping-pong, synchronized ribbon-twirling, or badminton–WRESTLING.

The decision, made by secret ballot of the I.O.C.’s 15-member “executive board” (in the gladiator capital of Lausanne, Switzerland), lumps wrestling in (if you aren’t already, please sit) with: rollerblading, sport-climbing, squash, wakeboarding, and washu (don’t ask), as sports falling shy of Olympic standards. Interesting, because I don’t recall rollerblading’s mention at the ancient Greek games (708 B.C.), and last I checked, wakeboarding was 180 sanctioning bodies shy of wrestling’s importance in the global community.

Of course, why embrace facts – and the raw purity of sport – when “telegenic digestibility” is the prevailing standard? According to I.O.C. spokesman, Mark Abrams: “The vote is part of the process of renewing and renovating the program of the Olympics. We want to ensure that the Games remain relevant to sports fans of all generations.”

So, wrestling isn’t “relevant to all generations.” Makes sense, if you’re Euro-castrati bent on socially engineering athletics to suit tastes and not tradition. Wrestling – the oldest sport known to man – is practiced by Individuals, the consummate gladiator engagement as ancient as the anthropogenic urge to compete. Wrestlers, the world’s best conditioned athletes, are arguably the hardest working, and the sport in which they participate stands above all sports in what it requires of participants. There is, for wrestlers, no million dollar payday at the end of the line, no cereal box and love-in on “The Today Show” set. For amateur athletes whose personal zenith begins and ends with the playing of The National Anthem before the entire planet, wrestling is the PENULTIMATE OLYMPIC SPORT, the definition of the Olympic Spirit embodied in the anonymity of its toil, the endless hours of blood, sweat, and tears… To remove wrestling from the Games is perverse to their meaning, for it removes the very essence of “dedicated amateurism.” The Olympics without wrestling is like Beethoven without strings–something beautiful is gone… Something marvelous. Indeed, the sporting world will be worse for the decision, if in fact this tragedy takes place.

And, rest assured, it is tragic. In 2012, in London, 71 countries sent wrestlers to the Games, with 29 winning medals. Wrestling doesn’t require a rink, a pool, or a stadium, it requires two willing participants and a mat. Small countries medal (Bulgaria: 32 silver; 16 gold), big countries medal (The U.S.; 50 gold) as athletes of all shapes and sizes, and all backgrounds, can partake. Wrestling is ancient, egalitarian, rudimentary and, as a sport defined by the synthesis of thought, endurance, toughness, and strategy, nonpareil.

It’s also inspiring. Courage invests itself in those willing to risk humiliation. Falling shy of the wall in the 100-meter Butterfly is not the same as having one’s shoulders pinned to the ground, a referee’s hand exploding in one’s ear. Wrestling entails risk. The essence of sport-as-life there congeals.

Remember Rulon Gardner? In 2000, in Sydney, the supposedly outclassed kid from Wyoming defeated Alexander Karelin, the wrestling equivalent of Edwin Moses, who hadn’t lost a match in 13 years. Heck, Karelin hadn’t given up a point – not one! – in six years. And Gardner? In 1993, he came in fourth, at 275 pounds, at the NCAAs. This wasn’t Buster Douglas flooring Mike Tyson; Mad Mike turned out to be more tongue than teeth. (Apologies to Evander Holyfield.) This was David v. Goliath. And yet, at the end of the day, it was Gardner – a
farm boy from Afton – seizing Gold….

“I don’t think anybody saw it coming,” Gardner said of the I.O.C.’s decision. “This is one of the original sports. It’s been around for thousands of years. The Olympic movement has gone astray. It’s moving in the direction, not of history but of ratings. Is it about mainstream and money, or is it about amateur sports competing at the highest level on the world stage?”
Ask the parents and coaches of the 275,000 kids who last year participated at the high school level how they feel about competing at the acme of sport. Ask the millions of participants in 180 countries worldwide what they think about the brie-eating bombast of the I.O.C. labeling sport’s Original Contest “irrelevant.”

When Jeff Blatnick of Niskayuna was one of those kids, toiling in obscurity on a cracked mat in a leaky gym-annex in New York, no one knew that he would overcome cancer at age 25 and go on to win Gold at the ’84 Games. He eventually became a motivational speaker. So did Gardner. Jake Herbert, who wrestled for the U.S. in London, says, “Wrestling is the Olympics. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most demanding and most humbling sport there is–it teaches so many life lessons.”

Which begs the question, How many members of the I.O.C. executive board have ever wrestled? They seem to know a lot about relevance, but one wonders–are they relevant? And if so, why?

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