Wrestling with Shadows

Olympic Committee reinstates the world's oldest sport


Being in a position of authority regarding the Olympics can be a thankless job. Imagine being Mitt Romney, for example, who was instrumental in ensuring the Salt Lake City Olympics did well, but who wasn't really able to translate that into political capital. Or the Russians, preparing for the Sochi Olympics and facing international criticism for that nation's laws repressing homosexuality.

Most decisions made on the Olympic level are going to attract more criticism than compliments. In part, it's because the Olympic Games serve as an effective microcosm of global relations themselves — fractious, driven by sophistry and national self-interest. Despite these issues, sometimes the International Olympic Committee gets it right.

One example: The IOC reinstated wrestling as an official Olympic sport — provisionally, at least — reversing its plans to drop grappling as of the 2020 games. In a century that so far has been less than hospitable to amateur wrestling, this is a much-needed move that could, if not save the sport, at least buy it a little bit of time and perhaps give it a platform to gain some forward momentum after suffering more setbacks than Blaine Gabbert.

Advocates for the sport with Florida connections are enthusiastic about the IOC decision. Gerald Brisco, a former mainstay of Championship Wrestling from Florida during the 1970s, who also played a pivotal role with World Wrestling Entertainment for many years thereafter, commented on his Facebook page in the wake of the IOC's historic reversal.

"[This] shows that wrestlers never give up. The wrestling world came together worldwide to work to save our great sport," Brisco wrote. "[You] can't keep a wrestler on his back for long."

David Williams, longtime wrestling coach at Bishop Kenny High School, had this to add on the importance of wrestling in the Olympics.

"I'm very pleased that wrestling has been reinstated. For many minor sports like wrestling the pinnacle of competition is participation in the Olympics. International wrestling has made some changes to become more fan friendly by promoting more action and aggressiveness. The sport should have more fan appeal. I had a couple college friends and competitors that made the 1980 USA Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. They had their athletic dream and life work taken from them by politics."

As Williams notes, wrestling had to make changes to stay relevant. The number of men's weight classes went from 10 to six in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle. Women's weight classes increased to six from four. No doubt there are some traditionalists who'll take issue with these changes. They might just be misguided.

For one thing, the increased participation of women jibes with an increase in women participating in amateur wrestling in the United States. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, more than 7,000 women now participate in high school wrestling programs in America, and 22 colleges have women's wrestling programs.

Considering how those numbers have grown from zero just a couple of decades ago, it's clear that women have an interest in amateur wrestling — and that interest is likely shared worldwide. Gone are the days when women were considered too delicate for combat sports — or combat, period. Those patriarchal notions smolder on the ash heap of history, and by dispensing with them, wrestling was able to move on from possibly being down for the count.

Wrestling isn't the only individual combat sport attracting women. Increasingly, we see quality female boxers and mixed martial artists — and we will see more, as women are training more seriously, which in turn takes advantage of their natural athleticism, toughness, intelligence and determination.

Consider an athlete like Ronda Rousey, an elite athlete who just happens to be a woman, not some eye candy put forth by cynical promoters. She'll be the standard for a generation of women, who will be influenced by her just as this century's women's soccer players were influenced by the United States Women's National Team about 15 years ago. Success and achievement — the best models for athletes.

It's entirely possible, of course, that the IOC could reverse course and decide wrestling isn't worthy of being an Olympic sport. Stranger things have happened — and wrestling is nothing if not a sport of reversals. Still, it seems that globally, the wrestling community is committed to doing what's necessary to ensure the sport's continued viability.

The oldest sport in the world might have been the most conservative, but rule changes did come into play to make certain wrestling is in the Olympics. The change of match structure to two three-minute rounds with cumulative scoring — and other provisions made to stop stalling in matches — should ensure a product that pleases casual fans and diehards alike. The influence of MMA rears its head here, as fight fans have become more demanding about the shows they see. All of this, in the end, benefits the sport.

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