There was a time — when I was younger, skinnier, more mulleted — when I might have snickered at the news that the IOC is dropping wrestling from the Olympics. This was back in high school, when basketball players engaged in a sort-of rivalry with wrestlers. It never involved fisticuffs or takedowns. In fact it had cooled a bit from a few years earlier.
The beef? Hard to remember the fine details, but it basically centered on each sport’s athletes believing they worked harder than the other group. Or maybe it was about the relative difficulty of each sport, figuring out which required more skills and smarts. I’m sure we ridiculed wrestlers for participating in a boring sport — what’s the fun in watching two guys roll around for six minutes — and they likely mocked any idea that basketball was physically taxing. We made fun of them during the basketball portion of gym class, when the backboards came under fire with every jumper launched like a cannon out of the wrestlers’ stumpy arms. They tried kicking our ass during the wrestling portion of gym class. And so it went.
Of course most of these debates were meaningless, the product of delusional teen minds. There is no doubt: Wrestling was tougher. It wasn’t just a line on those dumb T-shirts the wrestlers always wore. My school, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton, had a legendary wrestling coach, Mike Niemczyk, and he was famous for his legendarily tough wrestling practices. Wrestlers in our school worked like maniacs — competing on the mat in the small gym and running the halls and stairs decked out in shorts or sweats and hooded sweatshirts. At the end of each practice the entire team looked like they’d just competed in a triathlon while being beaten with bats every two miles during the marathon portion of the event. Wrestlers are a different breed, there’s no doubt. Still, even after school and even after I acknowledged to myself how tough there sport was to compete in, I probably didn’t fully respect just how fascinating a wrestling match could be.
That changed during my days as a newspaper reporter. Of all the events I covered — the buzzer-beaters in basketball, the last-inning heroics in baseball, the 100-meter showdowns — the most exciting things I saw were a pair of wrestling matches between two guys named Nate Baker and Bryan Cowdin. Each won multiple state titles. Each was unbeaten prior to their match. Each time the entire area looked forward to the showdowns, filling the gyms. Each time the team portion turned into a rout — but no one cared. Each time Baker won in the final seconds. When Baker and Cowdin faced off under the spotlight it was the most intense, thrilling events I had the chance to cover. Wrestling matches? Wrestling matches.
Over the years I’ve occasionally voluntarily tuned into a match on TV, whether it was Rulon Gardner winning gold or Cael Sanderson going unbeaten in college. These days I certainly have tremendous respect for wrestlers — and their sport. And now it will disappear from the Olympics in 2020.The decision obviously shocked the wrestling community — the state of Iowa might have even declared an official day of mourning — and the mystery surrounding the decision adds an intriguing element.
“The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program commission that analyzed 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.”
Modern pentathlon survived, wrestling did not. Golf is coming to the Olympics, wrestling is leaving. Who knows what really happened in the boardrooms — what promises were made, which backs were slapped, how many dollars were exchanged — but I’m disappointed in the decision primarily because wrestling is the type of sport I look forward to at the Olympics. Even with my respect for the sport and even though I do catch the occasional big college match, it’s not exactly in heavy rotation on my TV. But it’s something I’ll watch at the Olympics because the Olympics are the pinnacle for those athletes, they are the perfect showcase for the sport. I love watching the Dream Team every four years, but I love watching those stars play during the NBA season even more. A gold medal in 2008 did nothing for LeBron’s legacy; a title in 2012 did everything. Michael Jordan is primarily remembered for his six titles, not his two gold medals, even if he won the second one on perhaps the most famous team in basketball history. When golf joins the party, where will it rank? If Tiger wins a gold, will people remember that more than whether he passes Nicklaus for most majors? Will it be more exciting than the Ryder Cup?
Perhaps the IOC wants to expand its popularity with more mainstream sports, but for me the Olympics are more often a chance to escape the mainstream. I’ll watch fencing in the summer and luge in the winter but only every four years. On the mat you discover the stories of the Russian wrestler who’s waited four years for one more chance at gold. You see Sanderson completing his resume with an Olympic title. Wrestling won’t disappear if it never appears in the Olympics again, but it will certainly be a major blow to the sport.
I’ll miss it, because even an old basketball player can’t help but respect it.