On Tuesday, the athletic world was rocked by the announcement that the IOC had voted to remove Wrestling from the list of the Olympic Games’ 25 “core sports”. This vote by the IOC means that Wrestling, one of the oldest and most iconic of all Olympic competitions, may face elimination from the 2020 Olympic program. I couldn’t believe what I was reading as headlines and Tweets popped up more and more quickly on Tuesday morning–primarily expressing the same shock and disappointment I myself was feeling at the thought that any group of people could agree that a sport that is literally one of the cornerstones of the Olympic Games and Olympic Movement should be replaced by… what–wakeboarding? rock climbing? All I could think was–”This has to be a mistake. No one could honestly and in good faith want to cut Wrestling from the Olympics.”
I don’t know that much about wrestling. But I do know that its roots are ancient–and that competitions predate almost every other Olympic sport aside from running. Wrestling is one of the original Olympic sports contested by ancient Greeks in the ancient Olympics. It is one of the simplest and purest forms of athletic competition, requires little or no specialized equipment and is not limited by geographical or socioeconomic factors. It has survived centuries of evolution and development to be a part of almost every Modern Olympic Games, and is a mainstream youth sport in the US in which young men and women can begin participating as elementary students, and can continue on through the NCAA system–and eventually dream their way to the world’s grandest and most celebrated athletic stage: the Olympics.
Why–why–would we want to cut ties with a sport that is so intimately connected with the very foundation of the Olympic Games? What message is the IOC trying to send the athletic community–both athletes and fans–about the direction of the Olympic Movement? And if the IOC is ready to break away from the sports that paved the way for the Modern Games in favor of more non-traditional, unorthodox sports in order to sell tickets and boost television ratings, that means that other non-marquee sports with even less historical bearing than Wrestling can’t rely on the historic argument any more.
The historic argument–as I see it–is applied to sports that have been present for most or all of the era of the Modern Games. There are only a handful of Olympic Sports which have been contested at every Modern Games, and Rowing happens to be one of them (excepting the inaugural 1896 Games, when Rowing was canceled due to weather). To me, the inclusion of a sport in the Games for its duration indicates that the sport possesses some sort of inherent value in its history, its legacy, its universality or some other intangible factor that both defines the sport itself and also links it to the very identity of the Olympic Games. Imagine the Olympics without Athletics; without Swimming, Cycling, Gymnastics or Fencing. These sports are emblems of what it means to be a Modern Olympian and their virtues lie in their simplicity, and their rich historical traditions. We run, throw, swim, jump, cycle, or row in direct competition with one another. No frills. Nowhere to hide. Just people going to the line against each other, with the faster, stronger, gutsier athletes coming out on top. Their purity is what makes sports which are subject to the historic argument some of the most bad-ass competitions you will see every four years at the Games, and also what should make them indispensable to future generations of Olympic athletes and fans.
But not any more. It seems the historic argument is no longer going to keep us safe from the ever-evolving commercial side of the Olympics, which weights ticket sales, television ratings, and celebrity athletes more heavily than the values and traditions of a given sport. Yes, times and cultures change and our athletic contests are a reflection of that. But at some point, we need to stop and and ask ourselves what exactly we are celebrating and selling with our Olympic program as we continue to adapt more technologically-dependent and adrenaline-packed sports that ancient Olympians could never have dreamed of. What do we want the Olympics to mean to us as we move forward? and what do we want our Olympians to represent when they put on their colors and represent their countries? Just that we are hungry for BMX crashes and NBA stars on parade? Or that there is an element of human excellence and goodness that is bigger and much much older than all of us, that we can remember and celebrate every four years? The Olympic Games are not meant to be the same as watching the Super Bowl, or watching the World Cup. The Olympics are the Olympics because they have been unafraid to be different than other mainstream athletic competitions and because they have always maintained elements of tradition and history that have been passed down over centuries since the ancient Games, and 100+ years since the initiation of the Modern Games. The Olympics are the Olympics because they have been unafraid to take us back to our roots, and to celebrate the simplest aspects of what it means to be human. I think a departure from that is a departure from what the Olympics always have and should continue to stand for. I think I a departure from that is an admission from those behind the IOC curtain that their Olympic Movement isn’t really a Movement at all. And that crushes me.
My heart breaks for the individuals and teams around the world who have committed their lives to pursuing excellence in a sport that, until now, I assumed would continue to define the Olympic Games for generations. My heart breaks because I am realizing that it could just have easily been my sport that was cut–for being more expensive, more specialized, and less inclusive than Wrestling. It kills me to think about my Olympic career being destroyed by a group of fifteen people in Switzerland, voting on my fate by secret ballot. It kills me to think that anyone, anywhere who might have seen their sport as salvation, or as a means by which to achieve something truly great, may now be lost or feel abandoned.
For anyone who is interested in following the journey of Wrestling athletes in fighting to regain inclusion in the 2020 Games, a good starting point is to follow and support my friend, Jake Herbert, who is a strong voice on the USA Wrestling Team (and is also super-cute):
Olympic Wrestling Twitter Handle: @OlympicWrestlr
All my best to the Wrestling family, the world over. You have my support.
Long Live the Dream,