The recent decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the last straw for this once loyal Olympic audience member. Earlier last week, it was announced that the sport of wrestling will be terminated from the Olympic Games starting in 2020 to make room for golf and rugby. Even if I had not wrestled in high school, I would still be spitting mad at the decision. When the Olympic Games first arrived on the scene in 708 B.C. under a happy Greek sun, wrestling was there, highly regarded for its demonstration of strength. But sports of tradition and antiquity mean nothing to the IOC, which laughs at the notion of competition for the sake of competition. The spirit of athleticism, a once honored creed of the Olympics, has been dead for a long time and the IOC has been kicking its lifeless corpse ever since.
Forged in the flames of competition and pride, the Olympics has been the ultimate spectacle of international contest. But I have to say the last Olympics was lame. I don’t recall seeing anything other than swimming and gymnastics. Sure, I could have gotten up at three in the morning to watch tae kwan do, but I am usually busy sleeping. What really bothered me was the celebrity status the athletes gained. Ryan Lochte, one of the best America had to offer in swimming, ended up on the red carpet at the premier of movie events and roof-top pool parties with Prince Harry. There was a time when all this commercialism and sensationalizing was avoided as much as possible in an attempt to keep the Olympics pure, untainted, and as genuine as possible.
In the 1932 games, Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi was rejected participation in the games because there were concerns about his status as an amateur, which challenged the rule that professionals were not allowed to compete. But since the advent of professionals in the Olympics, the integrity of the games has taken a nose dive.
Any wrestler who has ever aspired for greatness has aspired to win a gold medal in the Olympics. The pinnacle of achievement in the world of wrestle is to win an Olympic medal. The same can not be said for other sports.
Take basketball for instance. Don’t get me wrong, I am a ‘90s baby and I love the original dream team as much as the next guy, but ask any player in the NBA if he would rather have a ring on his finger or a medal around his neck and he will choose the former. Some of the greatest basketball players opt out of the Olympic run because who wants to spend an otherwise relaxing summer after a rigorous NBA season to go on and represent his or her country? And where is the excitement in basketball in the Olympics? The world over knows which country’s team is coming home to a ticker-tape parade (Do they still have those?): The U.S. of A.
Wrestling is a different story. If you look at the medals accumulated over the years, you will find that the nations who take top prize are extremely varied. In most cases, whatever particular weight class you examine over the last several Olympics, you will find a diverse collection of nationalities that took a spot on the podium. I believe it has something to do with wrestling being ubiquitous, presiding in some form or fashion in almost every culture all over the world. Anyone can do wrestling. One doesn’t need any equipment except for maybe a mat, which even that is not always necessary. That is why wrestling is truly an underdog sport. There have been numerous stories of wide-eyed youths in bleak situations, who amid their down-and-out life situation, wrestled their way to Olympic pride, acting as a fountain of inspiration for their fellow countrymen. Stories about going from third-world slums to basking in the glory of international respect are not all that uncommon. And who can forget the story of Rulon Gardner, the American home grown son who grew up on a Wyoming farm upsetting Aleksandr Karelin, the monster from Russia who many considered to be the greatest wrestler ever, going undefeated for 13 years, and not having been scored on in ten. It was the feel good story of the 2000 Olympics.
What was even more perplexing about the IOC’s decision to end a sport so entwined with the history of the Olympics was the fact it kept sports that would have been much more of a practical choice to relinquish from the games.
For the sake of time, I won’t even go on about ping-pong, canoeing, kayaking, or synchronized swimming, but I will mention the modern pentathlon, a sport whose popularity is limited to Europe, which, by the way, is the continent a handful of the members who constitute the executive committee of the IOC are from. To be a pentathlon athlete, you must be proficient in pistol shooting, fencing, freestyle swimming, running and equestrian. Sounds to me like you must be pretty rich too since pistols, horses, and fencing gear don’t come cheap. Also, according to a quick Wikipedia reference, there were 72 pentathlon athletes in total at the 2012 Olympics. For wrestling, there were 71 teams total that represented their respective nations, with both freestyle teams and Greco-roman teams, each having seven weight classes. Not to mention the women’s teams for freestyle, who up until recently, were not allowed to wrestle in the Olympics. Now they will have to return to that exclusion thanks to the IOC.
Wrestling was not the only sport I did in high school, but it was the only sport that gave me a totally unique brand of pride when I won a match. When one wins a match, it is purely an individual effort, and the credit, or the blame, can only rest at one person’s feet. It makes getting your hand raised by the referee so much sweeter at the end. For the sake of the athletes, I hope the IOC reconsiders its decision.
Ben Horowitz can be contacted at