The other day some pencil-necked geek in tight jeans and a plaid shirt came up to me and said, “Hey Coach, did you know that the 1900 Olympics were the only Olympics ever held without wrestling on the programme?”
I stared at the boy with extreme disdain and retorted, “There were no Olympics in 1900 by virtue of the fact that there was no Olympic wrestling. I don’t care what the history books or Wikipedia say. If it doesn’t have wrestling, it simply ain’t an Olympics; a rifle ain’t a rifle unless it has a trigger, otherwise it’s just a poorly shaped paper weight. Also in this country it’s spelled p-r-o-g-r-a-m.”
Then I double legged the pipsqueak through the side of a barn and led the gathering crowd of hundreds in chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A”.
The young know-it-all, in what was probably his first time accomplishing something of use, actually did me a favor. Our brief exchange reminded me of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics’ imminent arrival, and I realized that it was probably time I came back and wrote about it.
Finding a starting place for Olympic-centered wrestling writing proved to be easy. These are generally exciting times for the sport, and the biggest thing to happen to wrestling since Milo of Croton occurred during this past Olympic cycle when wrestling and the Olympics briefly parted ways.
Now more than two years after the fact, wrestling’s strange 2013 Olympic exit and reentry still provide ample material for commentary and dignified discussion. In light of this, I considered opening the first entry of this feature with a title along the lines of “Wrestling is back in the Olympics, and now there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Then I realized that title would be a bit silly for couple of reasons, the foremost of which is that permanently ousted or not, wrestling would have taken part in the 2016 Games in Rio. The first wrestling-free Olympics worldwide sporting showcase erroneously referred to as the Olympics wouldn’t have come around until 2020.
I also find it silly to over dramatize wrestling’s exclusion from the Olympics considering that the sport was technically only kicked out of the Games for two hours on the morning of Sunday September 8, 2013. At approximately 10:30 a.m. in Buenos Aires on that Sunday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) assembly voted to ratify the IOC executive board’s recommendation to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Games’ program of 25 core sports. Shortly after noon on that same day, the IOC assembly overwhelmingly voted to add wrestling back into the 2020 Olympics.
Media coverage of wrestling in 2016 will undoubtedly focus on the sport’s death and resurrection, despite its duration of less than 200 minutes, long enough for the IOC members to eat a chimichurri smothered steak lunch and wash it down with a couple glasses of Malbec.
[Note: To make matters even weirder, the IOC is now looking to move away from the arbitrary 25 core sport cap (page 14) which was the basis of booting wrestling in the first place.]
This isn’t to say the whole incident with the IOC executive board was neither a big deal nor extremely frightening. It was most certainly both. I felt genuinely scared that due to the incompetence of wrestling’s governing body, then known as FILA, that my favorite sport and a vital part of our worldwide athletic heritage would find itself in the dustbin of total irrelevancy.
And make no mistake about it, wrestling got itself into hot water due to horrendous leadership from its governing body. Possible culprits such as poor television ratings (many Olympic sports did worse) and gender inequality (something present in many Olympic sports) do not explain the sport’s near demise nearly as well as the fact that FILA barely did anything for wrestling, and things that they actually managed to accomplish resulted in a product which even devotees of the sport could hardly recognize as wrestling.
In the beginning of 2013, Wrestling as a sporting spectacle was a shadow of what it should have been. Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling required a dramatic makeover, but this would never happen unless those in charge of the sport received some sort of drastic motivation. Luckily the IOC board stepped in and gave wrestling the kick in the ass it needed. FILA is now UWW (or World Wrestling, as they would prefer us to call them), and the sport’s leadership has instituted a host of positive changes. The crown jewel of these reforms are revised rule sets for both Olympic styles which have transformed international wrestling matches into a nonstop barrage of thrilling action.
If you don’t believe me, see below.
2016 is potentially the most important year in the history of wrestling. The perfect storm of positive factors are all converging, and if wrestling can take advantage of it, it can propel itself to new levels of worldwide popularity.
The sport, for the first time in a generation, offers a fan-friendly viewing experience which can attract a casual audience. Combine this with potential male and female American crossover stars, the Olympic debut of possible future G.O.A.T. Abdulrashid Sadulaev, and residual media attention from the frenzy of coverage that surrounded 2013’s IOC vote, and now people might actually pay attention when the wrestlers of Rio take the mat.
I want to take part in what should be a historic Olympic year for wrestling, so for the next six months I’ve decided I’m going to write about it. In the process I can teach readers all they need in order to fully enjoy the nuances of the world’s oldest sport, and share bits of the sport’s fascinating history. Perhaps I may even provide coverage of the lead up to the Rio Olympics where wrestlers qualify themselves and their country for the games. After all, before an athlete can wrestle in Rio, he must wrestle for Rio.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back and write about the 2020 Tokyo Games. There will be wrestling there, and thus we can all correctly refer to the event as the Olympics.
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