WRESTLING WITH A DECISION
Death, taxes and wrestling in the Olympics. Three things that were certain. Now only two remain.
The International Olympic Committee decided on Tuesday to eliminate wrestling from their roster in 2020. Perhaps gone for good is a sport with origins beyond the first modern Olympics in 1896. It is ancient as when the Greeks held athletic competitions that ultimately became the Olympics. Quite possibly the first sport, certainly parallel to running in the historic scale of challenges man made one to another. There are Biblical references to it, along with running and boxing. Just the name “Greco-Roman wrestling” reflects this ancient art-combative sport style common among countries along the Mediterranean Sea. The Czar of Russia used to reward great wrestlers. Napoleon encouraged his men in the sport.
The secret ballot vote in Switzerland this week was startling not just to those aficionados of the sport, but also to all who had come to expect some of the Games’ top dramatic moments. Dan Gable in 1972 defiantly taking on the then USSR and everyone else in his path while not surrendering a single point. The late Jeff Blatnick in 1984 who shattered the barrier for Americans with a gold in Greco-Roman while overcoming a battle with cancer. These are the inspirations synonymous with wrestling and more specific wrestlers.
Wrestling was that sport that could be followed every four years where an investment of time was easy because of the compelling stories produced. It embodied all that was the Olympics, strength, speed, dedication and courage. The fanfare limited to a circle with two men, and more recently women, putting forth their best effort. The result not subjective to judging, this was pure sport-a winner and a loser.
The United States of America was not dominant yet very successful on the Olympic mat. Marc Lean who runs our AXS TV Sports social media gleaned this nugget via DataBase Olympics : the U.S. has won 125 medals in wrestling, more than gymnastics (another TV marquee sport) with 95 or boxing with 109. And U.S. wrestlers were third behind only Track (764) and Swimming (488) in the all-time medal count. A “takedown” of information that obviously was lost on the IOC, then again maybe not. The elimination of baseball and softball–two bona fide American sports–were eliminated from the 2012 Games.
But wrestling has been pinned by the very basics of all sports, fannies in the seat. The wrestling venue was not a guaranteed sellout, the likes of nouveau sport Beach Volleyball commanded more TV time and is one of the toughest tickets. Outside of Iowa, possibly Oklahoma State and some Division III programs, ticket scalpers weren’t making a living in the U.S. on the sport let alone every Olympiad. Major college conferences once fertile with wrestling talent, the Pacific 10 (as it was known then) and the Southeastern Conference long ago cut wrestling from scholarship programs. Each year a few wrestling programs have to scurry enough cash from private individuals to keep afloat.
Still, it just didn’t seem possible that the once revered measure of a person hand-to-hand, body-to-body on a mat would disappear like that, poof gone in one fell swoop of a ballot behind closed doors. Not that it bare all disclosure as the sport itself is and deserved. Freestyle and Greco-Roman will have their place on the mats and podium in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and before it is said about praising Caesar before burying him (and he too was a wrestling fan) it must be noted that the Olympic committee can reverse the decision in May and subsequent appeals by the fall before once and for all putting the sport to rest.
A rallying cry has gained in volume over the last 48 hours, including the iconic Gable writing in USA Today that “It will take team work, with many individuals working together for maximum gain.” Never to dispel anything from the most influential man in U.S. wrestling, there is still a shimmer, though dimming, of hope. Or as another icon from another sport, baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over, til it’s over.”
What will be interesting over the next few years is the domino effect it will have on amateur wrestling in this country. Every collegian hopes to make the Olympic team just as every college basketball player dreams of the NBA, realistic or not. Imagine if there was no NFL to shoot for the impact it would have on college’s biggest economic sport of football?
There is no argument wrestling has been the biggest contributor to MMA. There is an inherent work ethic and a basic preparation of fundamentals that dovetail with the executions needed for MMA success. College wrestling programs have become feeders to the UFC and the other organizations as much as college football and basketball to the NFL and NBA respectively.
Unless that is a last gasp reversal to pin the IOC’s vote, will there be fewer top notch wrestlers continuing in college? What impact will other international events hold for U.S. wrestlers knowing they can never compete for Olympic gold? Would a great wrestler consider another avenue to the pros, maybe football and therefore restricting the flow of talent to the MMA ranks in the next five years?
Then again maybe the wrestlers of the future will be more in the fashion of Johny Hendricks who after a 2-time national championship career at Oklahoma State went straight to work on his MMA game instead of thinking about the 2008 Olympics. It could be imagined that Daniel Cormier and Joe Warren would have gone straight to MMA instead of competing for Olympic spots if there were none for the offering.
This week the IOC should be wrestling with their conscious over a decision that doesn’t seem to be garnering anything other than contempt. It could be that those in power in MMA are also hoping Olympic wrestling can somehow survive as a way of not only developing future stars but bringing them to the public’s attention long before they enter a cage. Boxing did this so successfully in the glory decades of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s with Muhammed Ali, George Foreman, Roy Jones, Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Oscar De La Hoya and others.
It has brought the wrestling community to a boil this week and the repercussions are far reaching, with no way of knowing what the fallout have on the college wrestling and MMA landscapes before 2020 rolls around.
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