Many in America and around the globe are perplexed and flummoxed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board’s recommendation Tuesday to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport, starting with the 2020 Olympic Games.
There are 25 core sports, and the IOC will be adding Golf and Rugby. There are eight other shortlisted sports, wrestling being one of them. One of those eight will be selected in September as the final sport of the 2020 Olympic program.
This decision did not just upset wrestlers and their families; over the past two days I, a local wrestling coach, have had numerous friends and acquaintances outside of wrestling express their dismay through emails, calls, and conversations with me. I have not talked with many of these friends and acquaintances for years. The decision has fired up a whole swath of the public that is not directly involved in the sport.
Their views align with mine. Questions abound. Why eliminate something with such a rich history and legacy? Not only has wrestling been an Olympic sport since the first modern Olympics in 1896, it is as old as the hills—there are inscriptions depicting wrestling on ancient Egyptian tombs from 4,500 years ago! Why eliminate something that is woven into the fabric of humanity? Almost every boy instinctively wants to wrestle on the playground and on the living room floor in his home. As I tell prospective wrestlers, “in wrestling you get to do what you get in trouble for doing at home.” Why eliminate something with such potential for the future? As long as there are human beings, there will be one-on-one combat as sport. Why eliminate something with such global appeal? Every culture known to man has had some form of it, and 129 nations have sent athletes to the Games in wrestling since 1896 (6th on the list of sports in the modern era). I do not wish to assume an elitist, my-sport-is-better-than-your-sport mentality, but I wonder how many of the other core sports, not to mention the sports that might replace wrestling in the Olympics (golf, wakeboarding, rollerblading, to name a few), have that kind of breadth of participation.
Come to think of it, why be exclusive at all? Why the need to keep the number of sports at its current spot? Why not be inclusive? I get that the IOC just simply can’t add sports to infinity. There has to be a line somewhere. But why is the line at 28 (25 core, Golf, Rugby, + one shortlisted sport)?
Furthermore, why eliminate a sport that is, well, so simple at its core? All one needs is, well, yourself and another human being. Even the mat is not essential. There are competitions held on the beach. This gives participation opportunity to all peoples, regardless of geography, race, religion, gender, or economic station. Eliminating something that has such broad appeal is the exact opposite of the Olympic spirit.
Some note that the IOC is looking to appeal more to youthful audiences, so it is looking to include sports with more of an edge that are more interesting to watch. However, while some of the current rules in wrestling might dilute its appeal, with the popularity of sports like Jiu-jitsu and MMA (which are intimately connected to wrestling), it is apparent that such an appeal is there in wrestling’s core. It is one-on-one combat! How could that not be interesting? Change the rules to update it, perhaps. But eliminating it entirely is equivalent to curing a headache by cutting off the patient’s head.
I could keep going on with more questions, but perhaps the most powerful reason to scratch one’s head at the IOC’s decision is not contained in a question, but a picture. The picture that goes along with this blog piece—of U.S wrestler Jordan Burroughs and Iran’s Sadegh Goudarzi after they competed against each other in the 2012 Games--says it all, and captures the tragedy of this in a way that talking points can’t.
The good news is that this is not over. The decision is not final. The next step is for the Executive Board to recommend a sport for the final spot in the 2020 Games. This meeting will happen in May in Russia. Wrestling will be one of those options, along with Baseball/Softball, Squash, Sport Climbing, Wakeboarding, Karate, Wushu, and Roller Sports. Next, while only the 15 member Executive Board (comprised mostly of representatives from Western European nations) voted Tuesday, in September the entire IOC will vote on the final program for the 2020 Olympics. That meeting will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
USA wrestling, the national governing body for wrestling in the U.S, is putting its full weight and energy behind the effort to persuade the IOC to come to its senses. USA wrestling will unite with the international wrestling community to get the job done. In the days ahead, we can expect quite a fight.
In the meantime, what can you do? Stay informed. This can start with something as simple as “liking” the “Keep Wrestling in the Olympics” Facebook page. As of Wednesday evening, there were over 72,000 likes on that page. That is quite astonishing in just over 24 hours. That bodes well for the future of this fight.
Rich Bordner is the coach of the Big Kat Wrestling Club, a wrestling club for youth grades 2-8. For more information, visit their website at bigkatwrestling.com