February 12, 2013
For wrestlers all over the world, the summit of their sport has been closed, at least temporarily.
Wednesday, young wrestlers will awaken for a rigorous workout and something precious will be missing from their motivation. They will realize an Olympic gold is no longer a possibility after 2016. Their pinnacle has been shut down.
The International Olympic Committee made a mistake, a big one, when it removed wrestling from the 25 core sports for the 2020 Olympics.
Rulon Gardner trained in Colorado Springs as he prepared for one of the grandest upsets in Olympic history. Gardner defeated Russia's seemingly unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 gold medal Greco-Roman competition.
"I don’t know if I'm really upset," Gardner said Tuesday from his home in Logan, Utah. "I am blown away. Wrestling is one of the foundations of the Olympic movement, and to just see them cut, with no warning, no nothing. To just cut wrestling for no reason."
"It’s mind-boggling. To lose the history of Olympic wrestling would be a travesty."
The IOC wants the Olympics to be more glitzy and TV-friendly, which explains why it removed wrestling in 2020 while adding rugby and golf for 2016.
"Maybe it’s not as eye-friendly as women’s volleyball," Gardner said, "but I don’t know why people wouldn’t want to support wrestling. I think it's pretty appealing."
He's right, even if little about wrestling is glitzy. The sport is primal, which is the core of its charm. Not many 3-year-olds want to play golf. Nearly all 3-year-olds want to wrestle.
To call wrestling simple is not to dismiss it. The sport demands incredible sacrifice and courage. It exacts a tremendous toll on those rugged enough to find success on the mat.
The IOC should embrace sports that are played at their highest level at the Olympics.
Here’s what I mean: To a wrestler, there is no greater honor than wearing a gold medal. That’s not true of a golfer, who longs to wear one of those green blazers. And that’s not true of rugby, either. Rugby already has a World Cup watched by millions (not many of them in America) around the globe.
The powers that be in the IOC must keep the Olympics fresh. Keeping the same lineup of sports, decade after decade, would turn the Games stale.
Still, removing wrestling is discarding part of the essence of the Olympics.
This summer in London, I watched a dozen wrestling matches. The venues were packed, and the vibe was thoroughly international. Men and women from around the world, and we’re talking literally here, gathered to watch their heroes grunt and struggle and sweat.
Wrestling is big in America, bigger than you might think. Crowds totaling 112,392 watched the 2012 NCAA Tournament in St. Louis. Pepsi Center is jammed every February for the Colorado high school finals.
But it’s not just America. The sport is popular in Europe, in Asia and the Middle East.
In London, I sat next to proud, friendly fans from Iran who shouted and danced each time one of their countrymen claimed victory. These loud fans were working journalists, but that’s OK. They were just caught up in the emotion inspired by wrestling.
In Iran, I’m sure there are tears over the IOC dumping this ancient, valuable sport.
The sorrow is everywhere. At 7:30 Tuesday morning, Air Force wrestling coach Joel Sharratt first heard the news that shattered the wrestling world.
Sharratt knows how a medal can inspire an athlete. As a youngster growing up in suburban Minneapolis, he first dreamed of a state title, and this dream came true.
Then he moved to the University of Iowa, where he envisioned an NCAA title, and this dream came true, too.
Finally, he coveted what every devoted wrestler covets. He wanted an Olympic medal, but this dream didn’t quite come true. Sharratt finished third at the 1996 Olympic trials and worked as a training partner at the Atlanta Games.
“This is our world stage,” Sharratt said Tuesday from his office. “It’s the one opportunity for a wrestler to reach the world stage.”
That stage has been darkened, perhaps forever.
Sharratt believes the IOC will come to its senses. Wrestling will not leave the Olympics, he said, but there will be fewer medals awarded. The sport will retain an Olympic presence, just a smaller one.
I hope he’s right.
Yes, the Olympics must change.
But not for the worse.