For almost all of its existence, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been a fundamentally controversial organization. From the blatant racism of the Avery Brundage era, to the hookers-and-cocaine taint affixed to the affiliates of Juan Antonio Samaranch, not to mention its historic Keystone Kops approach to doping and overall political cowardice on matters great and small, this venerable and, sadly, irreplaceable organization has been known to the public more for what it has done wrong (which is plenty) than for the many good things it has done right. And that’s a shame, because the Olympics is one of the very few things in this world that humanity has generally been able to rally around, suspend hostilities and truly enjoy as a species, rather than a collection of corrupt nations.
Now, in its 118th year of shady operation, the IOC has actually managed to render a decision so wrong-headed, malicious and foolhardy that it comes very close to exceeding that group’s already pathetic standard. On Wednesday, February 12, the IOC made what may be, arguably, the worst decision ever made by any governing body in the entire recorded history of organized sports when they announced that, starting with the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2020, wrestling will not longer an official Olympic sport. And before you ask: Yes, that is exactly what I just said. Now, take a moment, wherever you are, and let the language linger in your mind for a bit…
WRESTLING, among the world’s oldest sports, and one of the core events comprising the very foundation of the grand and glorious Olympic tradition from almost its very inception in 776 BC, is not suddenly inconsistent with the IOC’s vision. Obviously, this has a lot of people really angry, starting with the international wrestling community itself. The IOC, for some ambiguous reason, felt obliged to discontinue a sport, and it came down to five candidates: Wrestling, Modern Pentathalon, Badminton, Table-tennis and Taekwondo. The elimination of wrestling constitutes an especially bitter blow to women, who’d lobbied hard to acquire medal status for women’s wrestling, and only got it in 2004. (So far, the Japanese have dominated in that field.)
If it stands, this decision will in my opinion have a disproportionately negative impact on the United States, which has always been among the dominant countries for Olympic wrestling, and which has built up a massive, complex human infrastructure around its amateur wrestling scene. For amateur wrestlers–indeed, for most of the leading Olympic sports–that gold medal is the Holy Grail for thousands of young athletes, who work like animals to develop the physical skill and mental discipline required of elite-level athletes. They labor for as much as 20 years, just to get the chance to win a medal, which carries a small honorarium but no career stability. Wrestlers aren’t the kind of athletes who often end up on Wheaties boxes or doing commercials for Gatorade or Subway; that gold medal is not a gold-mine for them. At best, Olympic-level wrestlers can hope to parlay their accomplishments into success in either professional wrestling or MMA, which many experts have claimed is even harder than getting into the NFL or NBA. With the prospect of Olympic glory removed, it’s anyone’s guess as to how chilling the effect may be on the amateur scene here, and worldwide, for that matter; it’s doubtful that the IOC gave that matter any consideration at all.
The end of wrestling as an Olympic sport may also be potentially awful for Olympic business. Wrestling is generally a popular sport for TV audiences, especially in the United States, Japan and parts of the Middle East–certainly not on the level of marquee sports like track and field, swimming and women’s gymnastics, but considerable. Obviously, I’m biased, being a longtime fan of all the combat sports, but I think the blow is already being felt among general audiences, as well. Wrestling is a big heartland activity here; in states like Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma and Minnesota, wrestling may be even more popular than football. The names of men like Dan Gable, Danny Hodge, Verne Gagne, Bruce Baumgartner, Rulon Gardner, Alexander Karelin, David Schultz, Chris Taylor, the Iron Sheik and, of course Kurt Angle, reverberate in the living memory of a large segment of the population like demigods, more mythos than man after a point. The termination of this tradition is an abomination, and like any rube in pursuit of combat against a skilled wrestler, this decision is unlikely to stand for very long.