Wrestling: Dead or Alive?

Fightland Blog

By McLean Gordon

Remember wrestling? I do. I remember watching my best friend come off the mat in eighth grade crying and screaming like Conan the Barbarian in an ax fight after he'd just body slammed his opponent and won his match in under 30 seconds. It was incredible. That guy remains a physical machine to this day, running super marathons every chance he gets. One of the top wrestlers from my team became a Navy SEAL. Wrestling breeds competitors.

I remember nights of intense anxiety before a tournament, knowing that if I lost there was nothing in the world that would make me feel okay about it. I remember after three years of the wrestling team and the unmitigated physical scrutiny of having to watch out for every ounce of weight we gained, all I wanted was not to be on the wrestling team anymore. I never told anyone at the time, but the main reason I wanted to go to a new school for ninth grade was to get away from the wrestling team and my “win at all costs or cry in the corner” coach.

In many ways, it’s a shame I bailed. The discipline of wrestling was unlike anything I’ve known since. The level of physical exhaustion after a three-minute match was more gruelling than any hour-long workout I’ve ever done. I can remember being so dazed when the ref raised one of our hands that I really didn’t know who won or lost. Maybe if I had toughed it out and stuck with wrestling, my life would be different now …

But hey, it’s not like a teenage kid can dream of becoming a (real) professional wrestler. That’s because there is no professional wrestling league - at least not in the United States. Whereas football, basketball or baseball players can watch pros winning riches and fame every night, wrestlers have nothing more than endless practices, excruciating diets, and their own, uncelebrated pride. Considering how much my priorities as a teenager were based on the recognition of my peers, which in turn depended largely on how well I was able to conform with commercial, mass-media projections of what was cool, it’s not so surprising I bailed on a sport that offered none of that.

As of Tuesday, February 12th, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) bailed on wrestling too. Whereas my personal decision to quit wrestling was just one early swerve in my greater life trajectory, the IOC’s recent move is more like Burger King announcing it’s not serving hamburgers anymore. Wrestling has been part of the modern Olympics since the event began in Athens in 1896. The ancient Olympics -- theoretically the inspiration for our modern biannual commercial bender -- included wrestling as one of its most important competitions, embodied by the immortal Hercules. Now the IOC has pulled the plug on this quintessential Olympic sport in favor of golf and rugby, and other events like rock climbing and roller sports are in the pipeline to fill the wrestling void. Stunningly, the modern pentathlon remains an Olympic event instead of wrestling. How many people can even name the five disciplines making up the pentathlon?

Announcing the group’s unexpected decision, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said Tuesday, “It’s not about what’s wrong with wrestling, it is what’s right with the 25 core sports.” This statement reeks of political chicanery. No sport besides maybe running is more core to an individual’s development as an athlete. What does the IOC even mean by “core?” Core drivers of ad revenue, maybe? Maybe the Olympics should become a world swimsuit contest with celebrity judges.

However the public eye may perceive wrestling as entertainment, anyone involved in sport, particularly martial arts, has zero doubt about its training value. UFC President Dana White said of wrestling on Wednesday:

“It’s an awesome base for fighting, for mixed martial arts, for everything. It changes people’s lives. It’s this grueling hard work and dedication, all the things that go in with being a wrestler. Unfortunately, no one wants to watch it.”

The physical discipline and rigorous training that goes into wrestling prepares people from an early age to compete in any contact sport -- from football to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Wrestling has been one of the elemental forms of athletic training for boys since ancient times. That’s because in those times martial readiness was critical for one’s survival, and wrestling was the most basic form of martial arts training. The IOC’s decision to cut wrestling is just another sign of how confused things can get when global crowdsourcing -- or a corrupt bureaucracy’s approximation thereof -- takes control.

Since Tuesday’s announcement and the backlash from the global wrestling community, the IOC has backed away from its decision. Responding to petitions from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), IOC Vice President Thomas Bach told reporters, "I am happy about FILA's reaction to draw up a plan to act. That is the right way. Keep in mind a final decision has not yet been taken. If they (FILA) continue like that they will win a lot of sympathies,"

So wrestling will have to lobby for its place in the Olympics. But considering the pugnacious mentality of the wrestling community, it’s hard to imagine the IOC’s demand for a little bureaucratic schmoozing will stand in the way of the sport’s eventual resurgence. Which is to say the kind of people who thrive as wrestlers are the kind of people who will probably stop at nothing to save it. In the words of wrestling legend Dan Gable, who won Olympic Gold for the U.S. in 1972 in Munich, “The thing is, because of wrestling, I have a mindset that is strong - exceptionally strong. I don’t believe in the four-letter word ‘quit.’ I don’t believe in the four-letter word ‘can’t.’ Right now, I’m not going to change because I see an initial vote. I’m not going to quit. I’m going to fight.”

That’s the thing about wrestling. Wrestlers don’t get major media recognition; their wins don’t come with fame and fortune. That’s not what wrestling is about. It’s about a personal commitment to discipline, strength, and winning no matter what. The IOC probably should have thought about who they'd be pissing off. 

Check out this related story:

MMA Is Too Brutal for the Olympics (and That's Why We Love It)