Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. As with this month’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee to drop wrestling from the Olympics as of 2020.
The wrestling community was blindsided by that stunning news. It generated wide-spread coverage, with headlines like this from the New York Times: “Olympic Fixture Since 708 B.C. will be Dropped“. (Wrestling is still on for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.)
I have deeply divided feelings about the Olympics.
On the one hand, what’s not to love about sport as a fundamental human endeavor? Who isn’t moved by heroic efforts? Inspired when individuals or teams transcend stodgy boundaries of nationality, race or class?
On the other hand…good golly! One can cite a litany of unattractive qualities and allegations: politics, hypocrisy, ruinous expense, behind-the-scenes corruption, undue media influence, bad media coverage, doped athletes, poor residents evicted to construct venues that sit idle after the party leaves town, etc., etc.
But let’s set all that aside for the moment and set this discussion up thusly: if there is such a thing as the modern Olympics, what sports deserve to be there? Does core tradition stand for anything, or will the circus henceforth be devoted to glitter and high ratings?
Speaking of core tradition, when Greeks showed up to compete (buck naked) in the original “Ancient Olympics“, they wrestled. According to the official Olympic web history the key sports contested were:
The Pentathlon became an Olympic sport with the addition of wrestling in 708 B.C., and included the following running/jumping/discus throw. Running contests included:
- the stade race, which was the pre-eminent test of speed, covering the Olympia track from one end to the other (200m foot race),
- the diaulos (two stades – 400m foot race),
- dolichos (ranging between 7 and 24 stades).
Athletes used stone or lead weights called halteres to increase the distance of a jump. They held onto the weights until the end of their flight, and then jettisoned them backwards.
The discus was originally made of stone and later of iron, lead or bronze. The technique was very similar to today’s freestyle discus throw.
This was highly valued as a form of military exercise without weapons. It ended only when one of the contestants admitted defeat.
Boxers wrapped straps (himantes) around their hands to strengthen their wrists and steady their fingers. Initially, these straps were soft but, as time progressed, boxers started using hard leather straps, often causing disfigurement of their opponent’s face.
This was a primitive form of martial art combining wrestling and boxing, and was considered to be one of the toughest sports. Greeks believed that it was founded by Theseus when he defeated the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth.
These included horse races and chariot races and took place in the Hippodrome, a wide, flat, open space.
Viewers today expect track and field (oh, right! that’s now called “athletics”) boxing, gymnastics, swimming – too many events to name, actually. And they change a lot too. (See a current list here.)
Women’s participation was limited by period chauvinism as the modern Olympic movement began, but that inequity has been greatly improved. By way of example, the 800 meters was the longest “distance” race women could enter at the Olympics until the 1500 was added in 1972. Now women are there for the marathon, pole vaulting, boxing and yes, wrestling (freestyle).
Indeed, it’s the addition of new events that arguably forces the retirement of others.
Some might say that American objections to dropping wresting stem from the fact the U.S. shows strongly in that sport. Wrestling is offered in many U.S. high schools and colleges. You probably know someone who wrestled too, or maybe you wrestled yourself? Given that broad foundation, the U.S. does win a disproportionate share of medals.
But wrestling is considered a ‘universal’ sport. Unlike things like sailing (requires water, and $$) or equestrian sports (horse + $$$$) wrestling is dirt cheap. With some sports what I’ll call the source cultures have a certain advantage (judo in Asia or fencing in Europe). Not so with wrestling. All around the world, it boils down to two bodies, a few pieces of protective gear and may the best competitor win.
Some decided that was the problem: wresting is too basic. It’s not a marquee sport. These days it’s all about ratings, market potential and having a strong lobby.
Wrestling represents something very primal in human culture. But it needs saying that the modern sport has a number of questionable qualities too, particularly the unhealthy practices employed to “make weight”.
It’s easy to laugh at sports like synchronized swimming – although what those athletes do happens to be insanely difficult. Pretty much everyone can think of some sport they would vote off the Olympic island in a nanosecond. The perversity of what gets kept verses what gets dropped was perhaps highlighted by the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling but keep the modern pentathlon, a lesser-known event that was invented for the modern Olympics. (The Wall Street Journal has a break down of how elimination voting went.)
I am (just) old enough to remember Avery Brundage whose harsh, inflexible standards were aimed at keeping the Olympics untainted by the evils of professionalism. (Never mind the way athletes were developed as “pros” in Eastern block nations, or how this disadvantaged anyone who had to earn a living somehow.) In my view, Brundage took that cause way, way too far.
Even so, it makes my head spin to see professional tennis players at the Olympics. How did matters come to this? Entire squads of NBA millionaires hit the court at the summer games, the NHL dominates winter Olympic ice hockey. But the IOC says humble wrestlers should stop dreaming of a few medals to call their own?
There’s a chance, albeit a slim one, wrestling can be re-instated, as detailed by an op-ed by Jim Litke, national sports columnist for The Associated Press:
In the coming months, we’ll find out how many friends wrestling can pull together in a bid to convince the IOC to reverse course. The executive board meets in May to make a final proposal on which sports should be included in 2020, with a final vote scheduled for September. Wrestling now joins seven other sports, including roller blading, wakeboarding and wushu — a martial art — vying for a spot. Olympics observers doubt wrestling has a chance to get back in, but judging by the angry reaction that bounced from one side of the world to the other, it won’t head for the exits without a fight.
“If we don’t fight, we’re going to die,” said Rulon Gardner, the U.S. gold medal heavyweight whose victory over previously unbeaten Russian Alexander Karelin, dubbed “The Miracle on the Mat,” provided one of the Games’ most memorable moments ever. “At this point, it’s time for everybody to man up and support the program.”
Here’s an early counter-lobby response that shows the international reach of this sport.
Do you have a word (kind or otherwise) to put in for wrestling?
Assuming you follow the modern Olympics, how should that body decide what events are kept and which ones get dropped?