September 12, 2013 Updated: September 12, 2013 at 10:17 pm
Wrestling needed an overhaul to step into the modern sports age - and to remain in the Olympics - but the sport can only withstand so much overhauling.
Wrestling must remain wrestling. Primal. Brutish. Simple. Elemental. Timeless. Glitz and wrestling fail to blend. Mixing the two would be like asking Frank Sinatra to sing from the Kanye West catalog.
Rulon Gardner, one of the greatest American wrestling heroes ever, watched the Olympic vote Sunday from his home in Fort Collins. For months, he worried along with thousands of his wrestling brethren about the future of the sport.
When wrestling returned to the 2020 Games, Gardner released a long sigh of relief, hugged his wife Kami and turned his eyes to the future.
Needed changes were made. New rules will reward aggressive wrestlers while punishing passive ones. A fresh and needed two three-minute period format will replace the old three two-minute format. Flashier uniforms might replace the traditional one-piece outfits.
"We are not the WWE," Gardner said, referring to the infamous World Wrestling Entertainment. "We can't make it into a show and all that. Wrestling is about hand-to-hand combat. It's about the struggle. Wrestling has never been like beach volleyball with the party atmosphere."
Gardner laughed when thinking about the scene at beach volleyball, a sport that offers a dream scenario for TV executives. Beach volleyball is a thoroughly modern sport, with a breezy party atmosphere. Don't get me wrong. Beach volleyball deserves its placebelongs in the Olympics.
But so does the ancient sport of wrestling.
"It's been around for 2,700 years now," Gardner said. "It's a gladiator sport."
Wrestling will not suddenly become the go-to sport for TV viewers everywhere. Wrestling was not designed with TV in mind. Neither was lacrosse, another sport played since ancient times. When wrestling and lacrosse were invented a few thousand years ago, TV had not yet become a really big deal.
Leaders of wrestling are considering staged weigh ??INS and loud walk-out music and flashy lighting, and that's fine. But let's not get carried away.
Rich Bender, director of USA Wrestling, calmed my fears this week. He was fresh off a plane that brought him home from Argentina, where the vote that rescued Olympic wrestling took place.
"We're not about fundamentally changing wrestling," Bender said. "I don't think that is where we need to go. We won't make a wholesale change to the sport, so that it's not what we know as wrestling."
Bender talked the timeless nature of wrestling, which lingers as one of the sport's fundamental strengths. A spectator can walk into a wrestling arena, Bender said, and imagine he's back in ancient times in Greece of Rome.
"You can think about what it was like long ago," Bender said. "That's one of the beauties of our sport."
Still, Bender is excited about plans to speed up matches and sell wrestling to a sporting public that sometimes seems immune to the sport's appeal. This is an ancient sport, he said, but it doesn't need to be old-fashioned.
"There's a need to build heroes in wrestling," Bender said.
He's right, but here's the good news:
There's no better place to construct a hero than the Olympics.