Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Case for Olympic Wrestling

Just this week, the International Olympic Committee announced that wrestling would be dropped from the 2020 Games. The final three for consideration to be dropped were wrestling, taekwondo and modern pentathlon. Modern pentathlon was created by Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin as an ideal sport, so it has political and sentimental pull. Wrestling was in the ancient Olympics of Greece as well as contested in the first modern games in 1896 and its historical pull should keep it in the games.
The removal of wrestling takes away the dreams of many athletes. There are three styles of wrestling contested: freestyle, greco-roman and women's. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports makes a great point that Olympic wrestling is the pinnacle of the sport and the Olympics should continue to embrace what many deem as "Olympic" sports. He used the example of golf. Tiger, Rory or any other golfer winning an Olympic medal will be proud and happy, but that will never compare to the Masters or the British Open. An Olympic medal is tennis is wonderful, but is it greater than winning at Wimbledon or Roland Garros? 

The IOC should be more inclusive of these minor sports. These "Olympic" sports. Lebron will cherish his gold medal, for sure. But his ultimate goal is to win NBA titles. Baseball is a great sport, but they had to beg major league players to participate in the Olympics before baseball was cut. Sure, it was in season, but there was also too much money involved so the players did not want to leave the Majors. Sports such as wrestling, badminton, gymnastics, handball and canoe schedule their major world events around the Olympics and schedule for the Olympics. The Olympics are their ultimate event.

I love the Olympics as much as the next person. I have visited Olympic museums, sites or memorials in Atlanta, Calgary, Montreal, Oslo, Lillehammer and Lausanne. The ideals are beautiful, the competition fantastic, storylines gripping and nations represented fascinating. But in some circles, the Olympics, in particular the IOC, have a reputation of being a good ole boys club. Example is the former IOC president Juan Samanrach's son is vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union. Oh, and he's on the IOC board that got to vote on which sport would be dropped. I imagine he had a little bit of sway in the vote. Some describe the Olympics as elitist. There have been critics who say that the Olympics are turning into "games white people play".
Olympic Park

Look at the sports that have being added to the Rio Games: Rugby and Golf. I like both sports, but what do you think when you think golf? Rich white guys. How about rugby? I think bloody, rough white guys missing teeth. These are not sports that bring diversity to the games. Since they started the Rugby World Cup in 1987, the final four teams have been either France, England, Scotland, Wales or a member of the British Commonwealth. Argentina snuck in for a bronze in 2007. 

In the last 20 years, 80 golf majors were played. Only 11 times it was won by someone not from America, the United Kingdom or another British Commonwealth. Three of those eleven came from Irishman Padraig Harrington. That doesn't include four won by Rory McIlroy (twice), Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke who hail from Northern Ireland, a member of the United Kingdom. The other eight were split among five players: Bernard Langer (Germany), Jose Maria Olazabal (Spain, twice), Angel Caberra (Argentina, twice), Vijay Singh (Fiji, twice) and Yang Yong-eun (South Korea). I did not include in the 11 the two won by Nick Faldo, who hails from Zimbabwe, a former Commonwealth nation. In fairness, on the women's side, Americans or Commonwealth nations have only won 9 of the last 40 women's majors.

In 1996, beach volleyball was added to the Olympic program. 19 of the possible 30 medals in women's and men's beach volleyball have gone to Brazil or the United States. Of the others, 2 went to China and the rest to various European countries. On this note, the Olympics added beach volleyball to volleyball and trampoline to gymnastics but then take away entire sports such as baseball, softball and wrestling. Seems like if the Olympics are too large, it would make sense to trim from sports that have several components or disciplines (canoe/kayak, shooting, track and field, gymnastics, equestrian, weightlifting) rather than totally eliminate sports.

Wrestling on the other hand is global and diverse. It is a sport that has seen lots of success from what many of us might deem minor nations. Keep in mind, there are more weight classes, but the list is impressive in the number of countries represented and the diversity of countries. Middle Eastern and central Asian countries do really well. India, Mongolia, Egypt and Colombia have wrestling medals. Australia is the only continent not represented in wrestling in the last 20 years. And as John Irving noted in an opinion in the NY Times-- in London last summer, wrestling had more countries win medals (29) than modern pentathlon had countries competing (26).

Here are the countries that have medaled at least once in Greco Roman wrestling since 1992: 
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, United States, Uzbekistan.

These countries have won medals in Freestyle wrestling since 1992:
Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Cuba, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, North Korea, Puerto Rico, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, Uzbekistan

On the women's side, since being introduced at the 2004 Athens games, Olympic medals have been won by: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Colombia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Poland, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, United States (including McDowell County, NC's own, Sara McMann-- below, left).


In case you were wondering, since 1992, former Soviet republics and Eastern Bloc nations have dominated modern pentathlon, winning 17 of 18 medals on the men's side (the lone exception, 2012 silver by China). The women's side is a bit more equitable, former communist countries have only taken 5 of 12, with the other 7 divided between Great Britain's 5, one American and one Brazilian. 

Admittedly, I am biased in favor of wrestling because it has been a sport that has given me success, taught me lessons and enabled me to teach and coach young men. With almost 280,000 participants in 2012, it was the 6th most popular boy's sport in American high schools. It deserves a spot on the Olympic program because it is not only a sport that is participated around the world, but recent history has shown that it is a sport in which many countries around the world have enjoyed success. Wrestling is also steeped in our history. Jacob wrestled God, the Greeks admired wrestling, wrestling are national sports in Mongolia and Japan.

And wrestling is inspiring. There are very few sports where the blind, deaf and other physically disabled persons can compete and have a great chance at success. I've wrestled or coached against athletes who were blind, deaf, missing a hand or arm or without a leg. I saw a wrestler at a major tournament who had both legs amputated above the knee and competed and beat able bodied wrestlers. And there's Anthony. Meet Anthony Robles, born with only one leg and a 2011 NCAA Champion:

Since the IOC has not released their votes, we do not know how or why wrestling was chosen to be excluded in 2020, but all signs point to cronyism. It makes total sense to remove a sport that enjoys worldwide participation, requires little equipment, a sport where the Olympics are the peak of glory and in which dozens of countries have earned medals and replace it with sports that have a more narrow group of athletes, are often expensive to train for and purchase equipment, an Olympic medal is not the sport's crowning achievement and only a handful of countries will realistically have a shot at a medal.

I will enjoy future games. But if wrestling is not a part of them, as great as track and field, gymnastics and swimming might be, there will always be a hole without wrestling.

3 comments:

Emily Routon said...

well written! all of the wrestlers at my school have been making comments about this situation too... wrestling is a huge sport in Sitka, ak!

Eddie said...

Hi HKU, I found your blog on blog up. Anyway, you make some really accurate comments about keeping authentic, highly athletic sports in the Olympics. I missed the last Olympics because I don't have a TV. The point you make about the expensive equipment will exclude athletes from poorer countries.

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