“I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler.” – Socrates
When you ask most folks to think of the Olympics, a few images come to mind: Gold medals. Podiums. Countries coming together. Mckayla Maroney’s unimpressed face. Over-the-top ceremonies involving the Queen and James Bond. The glory of victory, and the agony of defeat.
Then I ask you to think about what sports define the Olympics. And sure, everyone’s going to have a couple of odd choices here, depending on preference (ski jump and hockey for this guy, please!) But by and large, most folks minds jump to the same things: running, jumping, swimming – and wrestling.
Wrestling has been around the Olympics from the very start, a storied and fundamental part of Olympic’s past. Now, thanks to a decision by the International Olympic Committee’s executive board this morning, it won’t be a part of Olympic’s future.
The IOC executive board decided to drop wrestling from the 2020 games in a move designed to make room for other sports. The board had been reviewing the 26 sports currently on the Olympic program, evaluating them on 39 criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity.
In the end, it was decided to drop wrestling from the ticket – and many folks both inside and outside the sport have been left shaking their heads in disbelief.
Wrestling was the second sport (after running) added to the Olympic games in 708 BC. When the modern Olympic games were (re)started in Athens, Greece in 1896, wrestling was one of the first sports added to the program. To say that wrestling is a fundamental part of the Olympic games is a severe understatement.
So here I sit, trying to wrap my head around this decision by the IOC, and I keep coming back to the only possible explanation: ratings.
Simply put, amateur wrestling has never been a big draw. At the turn of the (previous) century, wrestlers used to hold “catch-as-catch can” matches as a public spectacle, but soon ran into some promotional problems. People, it seemed, had a hard time understanding what was happening during a wrestling match. Often times, two men would be locked in an intense, technical battle to learned observers – and appear to be two sweaty, stalemated dudes leaning on each other to everyday folks.
So the catch wrestlers started adding more dramatic flourishes, simplifying the action, and even pre-planning or choreographing parts of their match to enhance viewer appeal – and thus, professional wrestling was born.
Now it seems we may be facing a similar problem with Olympic wrestling. It’s quite possible that the IOC believes wrestling just isn’t appealing to a mass, 21st century audience. It’s too dense to understand, there’s not enough drama, and it’s not very “casual fan-friendly”.
Ever watch an MMA fight, and the crowd starts to boo once it hits the mat – even though the fight’s still fun and both men are still fighting hard? It happens less and less these days, but it still happens. We may be seeing a similar phenomenon at work here.
Still with me here? Good, because everything I just said was complete and total bunk.
Yeah, people have a hard time understanding the finer points of grappling. But so what? That’s why you educate people, a slow and oftentimes painstaking process that nevertheless can yield results. To refer back to the example of MMA (hey, I’m the MMA editor, after all), fans have grown by leaps and bounds in their knowledge of the “ground game” since the sport still became popular.
Sure, people still boo. That’s because they’re drunk in a large crowd, and that’s a formula guaranteed to generate a couple of a**holes. But the level of education and understanding among even casual fans has grown exponentially over the last few years. Now submission experts like Demian Maia are fan favourites. GSP gets a huge cheer every time he passes to half guard.
And besides, since when has the Olympic games been about pandering to the uneducated? The Olympics are about pure sport, about athletes from many countries coming together to compete – not for money, but for love of competition. And the games are always a huge deal that draws big numbers on TV, even for sports that otherwise wouldn’t make it on the pop culture radar screen.
So who cares if wrestling isn’t as catchy as pentathlon (and I’d debate that point, but that’s an article for another time)? You should use your truly global platform to educate people on a sport that is a foundation of the Olympics, and perhaps the oldest sport known to man after running.
The Olympics (and the summer games, in particular) are the “people’s games”, in that they feature sports that anyone, from any nation, can do. You need snowy mountains and hundreds of dollars of equipment to become a skier. You need a paddle and a kayak to be a kayaker. But you don’t need anything to be a runner, or a swimmer, or a soccer player.
Or a wrestler.
Ok, you need a pair of shoes. And some space. And if you’re lucky, a shiny, multi-colored unitard. But those come later – to get started in the sport, you need your body, and someone willing to teach you. That’s it.
And seeing as how the IOC mentioned “global popularity” as a factor in their decision, I have to say: are you freakin’ kidding me? I’m a Canadian, so wrestling is a far smaller deal here then it is elsewhere in the world – and even so, it’s taught in school, and there are a wide variety of regional and national wrestling competitions. Then you have the United States, where wrestling is an institution in many parts of the country. And wrestling being too dense or boring certainly hasn’t stopped the NCAA Division 1 national tournament from being a huge deal in the American sports world.
And that’s to say nothing of countries like Russia, Turkey, Iran, and many others where wrestling is a national sport. Or the fact that women are increasingly becoming a bigger part of the sport, both in North America and abroad.
Wrestling is democratic, global, with a centuries-old tradition and an even playing field for men and women from all corners of the world. In so many ways, it is the ideal Olympic sport.
Too bad the International Olympic Committee doesn’t agree.