Wrestling back in the Olympics, in 2020
“I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler.”
“Running might be the first Olympic sport, but what were they running from? Wrestlers.”
-Kevin “The Ref” MacDonald
Wrestlng is as old as humankind. The creation story of numerous cultures centers on it. The Japanese trace their origin to a wrestling match between Takeminakata no Kami (representing man) vs. Takemikaza no Kami (representing God). In the 32nd chapter of Genesis (Old Testament) Jacob wrestled an angel (he lost). And in the United States, in Plymouth, the founding fathers wrestled braves from the friendly Massasoit tribe, as an early exercise in strong-arm diplomacy.
The first ancient Olympic Games was held in 776 BC. It began with a single event, the stade, a 200-yard foot race. This was the only event for the first 13 Games.
In the 18th Olympiad, in 708 BC, wrestling (pale) was added. In 648 BC mixed martial arts (pankration) was added.
With various additions, the Olympics continued for over 1,000 years, until in 394 AD, when it was banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, as part of his campaign to impose Christianity in Rome.
When the Olympics were reborn in Athens in 1896, wrestling again became a focus of the Games.
In a despicable break with the tradition not just of the Olympics, in February the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board made an unfathomable recommendation to drop the sport.
In so doing, the IOC voted to maintain field hockey, rugby, golf, taekwondo, and modern pentathlon.
The answer to why modern pentathlon made it is presumably because Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president, is vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union and a member of the IOC board. Other sports presumably have political supporters, without concern for integrity.
Wrestling was then forced into a pool with wushu, wakeboarding, karate, rollersports, baseball/softball (they are making a joint bid), squash, and sports climbing as candidates for one empty spot in the list of 26 core sports.
The pool of candidates was reduced to just three, with wrestling making the final cut – Wrestling, baseball/softball, and squash.
A vote was held today, and wrestling came out on top.
The sport will only slightly diminised, with the elimination one weight division each in men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman, bring the number of divisions to six; two weight classes were added in women’s wrestling.
BBC has the story.
Wrestling has been reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2020 and 2024 Games after being voted in ahead of baseball/softball and squash.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) members conducted a secret electronic ballot on the issue in Buenos Aires.
Wrestling – which was the favourite – received a majority of 49 votes, while a combined baseball/softball bid got 24 votes and squash 22.
Members of amateur wrestling’s world governing body, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (Fila), gave a roar when the result was announced by IOC president Jacques Rogge.
Wrestling’s triumph in the vote follows a number of sweeping reforms made following its exclusion, including overhauling its rules, administration, gender equality and operations.
Fila president, Nenad Lalovic, said the IOC would not regret its decision: “With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference.
“I assure each of you that our modernisation will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic Movement that we can be.”
Earlier on Sunday, Lalovic had declared during wrestling’s presentation to IOC members: “Today is the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport.”
In order to make the sport more compelling to the casual fan, it drew inspiration from another sport that defined the ancient Olympic games – Mixed Martial Arts.
Former world champion and chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, Bill Scherr, met in May with UFC chief executive Dana White. He then published an essay titled ‘A Shout Out to the UFC!’
As wrestling fights for its life to stay in the Olympic program, it is important to celebrate and understand the Ultimate Fighting Championships. It has become a tremendous source of pride and entertainment for the wrestling community and offers much that wrestling can learn from and emulate. They have also provided a showcase for the great skills wrestling develops and have highlighted many of wrestling’s greatest athletes.
The UFC is the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world. Based in the United States, they have a long-term contract with FOX television and average 4 or 5 million viewers per show. They have achieved more than a million “buys” on pay-per-view broadcasts for individual fights on multiple occasions. UFC is also a truly global phenomenon with events expanding around the world and programming in over 130 countries. It is one of the most valuable sports franchises on the planet with private estimates of an enterprise value surpassing that of the New York Yankees or Manchester United franchises.
Every wrestling fan’s chest should swell to know that the sport has contributed to that amazing success. From the early days of the UFC and the success of wrestlers Dan Severn and Don Frye, wrestling has been a big part of the UFC. Wrestling helped the sport gain momentum as it emerged to mainstream with help from wrestling heroes Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell. Today, many of the brightest stars in the sport are wrestlers including Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones. And the future of the UFC is bright with many grapplers waiting in the wings to emerge like Johnny Hendricks, Daniel Cormier and Sara McMann. Perhaps one of the sports brightest moments was UFC 100 which showcased wrestling great Brock Lesnar against Frank Mir and generated 1.7 million pay-per-view “buys.”
As much as wrestling has done for the UFC, the UFC has given back more to the world’s oldest and greatest sport. Prior to the UFC, the average person walking down the street had no idea what the terms foot sweep, double-leg takedown or a body lock were describing. Today, due to the UFC, most would know and be able to describe these wrestling moves, as well as the importance of being able to defend leg attacks and counter throws. Many mixed martial arts gyms now offer classes in wrestling and many young boys and girls are taking up the wrestling in grade school and high school dreaming of one day getting into the UFC’s octagon. And, perhaps most importantly, UFC fans now know of the great skills that wrestling develops and the tremendous athletes in our sport.
Wrestling is not a mixed martial art and it should not think of itself as such. It should not incorporate fighting disciplines into its organization. Wrestling has its place among the Olympic sports. Wrestling skills are among the most primary and arguably the most essential for success in the octagon. Wrestling is best served by sticking to its knitting and developing the sport of wrestling. Leave the fighting to the professionals.
That being said, wrestling has much to learn from its friends in the UFC. The franchise was on the verge of bankruptcy when brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their business partner, Dana White, purchased it for $2MM in 2000. In just over a decade they have turned it into a multibillion dollar franchise. What were some of the elements that helped them become so successful? First, they changed the rules and the sport presentation significantly. They went from a format where the athletes, particularly those from jiu jitsu, were spending much of the time lying on the mat (boring to those outside of jiu jitsu) to standup fights which showcase skills from all of the disciplines. Wrestling is badly in need of rule changes at the international level. They also improved the presentation of the sport. The stage is grand for the athletes and fans. The “octagon” is just plain cool. There are lights and fog and pyrotechnics and the intro music is loud and exciting. Perhaps most importantly, they have learned the value of creating a connection with the fans and their athletes. They tell the stories of their fighters and people respond emotionally. The reality series have helped develop these deep connections to the fighters. And, importantly they make investments in developing the sport at the grassroots level where they hold competitions.
Wrestling is on the verge of a different type of bankruptcy now. It would be a severe blow to be removed from the Olympic program. Now is the time to examine the sport and make changes like they did in the UFC—not only to demonstrate to the International Olympic Committee that wrestling belongs but to improve the sport for the future.