Anybody who knows me at all knew this one was coming. The IOC board voted to dump wrestling from the Olympics starting in 2020.
Lots of people are howling about this. And they damn well should be. There are many sides and angles to this story, but to me, it’s another in the long tale about how money and special interest have diseased sports, another in a long line of pitiful modern sports stories.
If you know me you probably know I’m a wrestling coach. I have been the head coach of Palmyra Junior Wrestling, a youth organization for kids ages 5 to 13 years old, for five years, and involved with the sport otherwise for 30 years.
People of all shapes and sizes can wrestle. You don’t have to be six-foot-five. You don’t have to be 235 lbs. You don’t have to be gifted with great foot speed. You don’t have to be lucky enough to have rich parents who can buy you lots of equipment and practice time. Boys can wrestle. Girls can wrestle. People with almost any disability can wrestle. It’s inclusive. It’s populist.
The IOC’s decision ignores all of this. It was a decision based on elitism and partisanship. In a secret vote, they were to evaluate the events of the summer games with the goal of eliminating one so they could add another. The criteria were murky. The voters had allegiances.
One of the sports wrestling is competing with is the modern pentathlon. I’m trying not to pile on with the criticisms of the modern pentathlon (but it’s there to be done, as ESPN writer Jim Caple and Chicago Tribune writer Steven H. Biondolillo, among others, have succinctly shown). I mean, quick now, name the five components of the pentathlon…
According to writer John Irving in The New York Times the pentathlon had competitors from 26 countries in last year’s London Olympics, while wrestlers from 29 countries won medals; Olympic wrestlers hailed from a total of 71 countries. World-wide, 180 countries wrestle, and only 53 engage in the modern pentathlon. Even though wrestling had almost twice as many TV viewers as the pentathlon, there was some talk of viewership governing the vote (which is pitiful in its own right). Irving also said IOC board member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is the son of a former IOC president, is also, oh by the way, vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
We’ll see what good comes of this. Already, strange partners have joined together for wrestling’s cause: The U.S., Cuba, Russia, and Iran. They are perhaps driven by the shared human legacy that wrestling represents. Iranian wrestler Ali Reza Dabir, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist, called wrestling “the identity” of the Olympics. “Do we destroy our historical sites which are symbols of humanity? No. Then, why should we destroy wrestling?”
I have been involved with the sport because, to me, wrestling builds character like few other activities. The connectedness of those who have wrestled is not based on the vacuous act of simply joining but on having shared in the unique commitments the sport requires.
So I’m biased. I’ve defined myself in many ways because of the challenges placed in front of me by wrestling. Forget the push-ups and headlocks. For a person like me – I’m no Dan Gable – the emotional and psychological struggles of a wrestling season helped change the way I approach adversity in other areas of my life.
It’s why I’m proud my own children have done it, and it’s why I’m proud every time a little kid from my program steps on the mat, in front of all those people.
The opportunities of wrestling are open to anyone, and most of the world is involved with this foundational sport that asks so much of its competitors. The potential removal of wrestling from the Olympics is another pitiful sports story: People making decisions based on self-interest, money, media. So the beat of contemporary sports goes on, drowning out those clear, essential tones of real human competition.
If you’re ticked off enough about this, sign the petition at Change.org.