The shocking news came on the eve of the the Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament, the grandest prep event of them all. The International Olympic Committee had thrown wrestling, the oldest sport of mankind, off the Olympic mat for the 2020 Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.
One of the original Olympic events, the first recorded Olympic wrestling match occurred in the 708 B.C. ancient games. Origins of wrestling can be traced back 15,000 years through cave drawings. It was also one of the first sports in the modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 1896.
One would think the Olympics would want to preserve its rich history. Instead the sport is unceremoniously being dropped while other obscure sports will make the cut.
With its 26th consecutive sellout, the numbing news drifted down at the state wrestling tournament, attended by 80,000 spectators over the half-week event. Wrestling defines Iowa as much as agriculture.
Just weeks ago, 15,000-plus packed Carver Hawkeye Arena on a frozen Iowa night to watch the No. 3 Hawkeyes take down No. 1 Penn State.
Just last April, 54,766 fans jammed Carver-Hawkeye Arena over four sessions for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in Iowa City. Tickets for the 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships March 21-23 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines sold out immediately. Wrestling is thriving at the high school level and hanging tough as it can at the collegiate level after years of Title IV and budget challenges. So why take away the Olympics?
What if Gable’s Olympic opportunity never existed?
Remember Dan Gable’s ultimate warrior image, standing atop the Olympic stand in 1972, hands on hips in his USA sweatsuit, looking forward, cauliflower ears bandaged, with the Olympic gold medal hanging from his neck. Imagine if that image never existed.
He looked like he’d been through a war. He had just won gold in the 1972 Olympics without surrendering a single point — an accomplishment compared to throwing two no-hitters in a World Series. He had been called the most dedicated, driven athlete ever seen. His training was legendary. The Russians had a national search to find someone to beat Gable and failed. His feat remains one of the most impressive in athletic lore, inspiring generations that followed.
That Olympic gold combined with his unparalleled coaching career at the University of Iowa, willing his teams into the most powerful dynasty in modern sports, solidified him as the most dominant coach-athlete in history.
Imagine if that Olympic gold medal opportunity had never been allowed to happen — the Olympic experience that made American culture identify him as the iconic ultimate competitor. Sure he would have won a world title, known to the small world of wrestling, but mainstream America would never have had the opportunity to witness and be inspired by his drive.
Gable embodied that Spartan mentality to reach the pinnacle and rouse the human spirit to greater heights of achievement.
But, now all-powerful and unaccountable members of the IOC in an anonymous, secret-ballot vote have decided to turn their backs on the historic sport of wrestling.
Flame of the Olympic world stage extinguished?
Future stories like Gable will never have the opportunity on the world stage after the IOC’s decision, if it’s not reversed. Olympic champions like Iowa’s Ed and Lou Banach and Randy Lewis in 1984, Oklahoma State’s John Smith in 1988 and 1992, Iowa State’s Kevin Jackson in 1992, Iowa’s Tom Brands in 1996, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson in 2004 and his pupil Jake Varner in 2012 would never have had the opportunity in the world spotlight to galvanize new generations. An opportunity is destroyed not just in wrestling, but in everything wrestling teaches — work ethic, toughness, courage, goals, dedication, focus, humility and resilience. Imagine if their Olympic golds and stories that motivated generations of hopeful wrestlers and lifted the spirits of mainstream America never happened. Their message would never have been heard; their examples would never have been seen.
Imagine lost opportunities in other Olympic sports
Expand this “imagine” exercise to other Olympic sports that never garner the world stage attention but once every four years. Imagine if Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s, Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas’ uplifting stories had never existed. Or the Kenyan or Ethiopian long-distance runners who ran barefoot out of poverty to Olympic glory. It would be a crime to humanity to ban these empowering stories from the Olympic world stage ... in sports no more popular than wrestling in non-Olympic years.
Isn’t that what the Olympics is all about? Every four years, the mainstream public is introduced to athletes in sports they may not be familiar with — athletes who have trained and sacrificed their entire lives for one opportunity in front of the world — to make their footprint to define their existence.
When you take that opportunity away, you take away part of humanity’s spirit to achieve something special.
Taking away the goal of being an Olympic champion in wrestling
The Olympic champion in wrestling is the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. It’s not like other non-traditional Olympic sports where professional titles like Wimbledon, an NBA championship or the Masters (golf is being introduced as an Olympic sport) are more highly coveted. For wrestling, much like swimming, gymnastics and track and field, being an Olympic champion is the apex of achievement. To take it away because of a secret-ballot vote by an unaccountable IOC board is shortsighted and ignorant of the Olympics’ own history.
The IOC’s poor judgement
The Olympic governing body has been riddled with poor decision-making over the years — scandals, bribes, dirty politics and deals with conflicting interests. But this decision rivals them all.
The larger question is why does society continue to entrust so much power in unaccountable boards to make decisions that determine the fates of communities and our activities? Who are these board members and how do they get appointed? Big donors, connections, political kickbacks, “group-think” to go along with the majority and powerful members all exist. What are their qualifications? What are their biases? How much thought did they put into their decision? If you’re not wary about all-powerful boards, you should be.
Wrestling community bands together
The international wrestling community has banded together — countries thought of as opponents in world affairs, like Iran and Russia whose national sports are wrestling, are joining together in solidarity along with the U.S. to appeal this misguided, ill-informed decision and have it thrown out on its ear. These countries will meet and talk at the World Cup in Iran Thursday and Friday. A meeting with the IOC president is on the upcoming agenda.
Wrestling is one of the most diverse sports with nearly 200 nations from all continents participating. It’s also one of the most inclusive sports, providing opportunities around the globe regardless of financial standing, geography, race, physical characteristics or gender.
The Olympics is a world stage that allows the inspiring stories of humanity to be told. With the decision to turn its back on wrestling, the IOC turns its back on its history and its mission.
Campaign to save Olympic wrestling
DES MOINES (AP) — Gov. Terry Branstad launched a campaign to keep wrestling an Olympic sport after the International Olympic Committee announced its recommendation to drop it. Branstad was joined at a Friday news conference by Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dan Gable. Visit “Let’s Keep Wrestling” (letskeepwrestling.com) to sign a petition to be sent to the IOC.