- Steve Wulf, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Back when I was a wrestler in high school, there was a notorious referee whom we called "Quick Pin." The instant one of your shoulder blades touched the mat, he would slap his hand on the surface to signal the end of the match. I once fell victim to "Quick Pin" in 45 seconds during the first round of a tournament when my heel caught in the mat and I fell over backward -- an ignominy that was amplified the next night when I returned to accept my third-place ribbon because there were only three wrestlers at my weight class.
That was about a hundred pounds and 50 years ago. But I was reminded of "Quick Pin" when the IOC recommended the elimination of wrestling -- a sport that dates back thousands of years and was one of the sports in the first modern Olympics in 1896 -- from the 2020 Summer Games. The vote to pare the sport from the Games, the result of a secret ballot conducted in Lausanne, Switzerland, came as a total surprise to FILA, the international wrestling federation, as well as many seasoned Olympic observers. It was, in a sense, a quick pin -- surprisingly unfair and unfairly surprising.
Dan Gable, the legendary wrestler and coach, told USA Today, "It's obviously one of my worst nightmares Hopefully, it's a major wake-up call that we can work through."
The IOC is trying to get down to 25 "core sports." Other sports on the short list for elimination were field hockey, taekwondo and the modern pentathlon. But none of them has the history or reach or participation levels that wrestling has. As Phil Hersh, the longtime Olympics writer for the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, "So much for IOC's alleged standard of universality for sports: modern pentathlon had athletes from 26 countries in London; wrestling 71."
Nothing against pentathletes who on any given day can fence, shoot pistols, jump horses, swim or run cross country, but who are you? Where are you? Why are you?
More importantly, and less facetiously, what is the IOC thinking? The base of the Olympian column is tradition, and wrestling, be it freestyle or Greco-Roman, is something the ancient Greeks would recognize. (As opposed to, say, BMX.) They had Milo of Croton, a student of Pythagoras who was a six-time champion from 540 to 516 B.C. and had his career cut short when he was eaten by wolves after he got his fingers stuck in a tree he was trying to split with his bare hands. We have Rulon Gardner, who beat the unbeatable Aleksandr Karelin for Greco-Roman gold in the 2000 Sydney Games, then later lost a toe to frostbite after his snowmobile fell into an icy river, leaving him stranded for 18 hours.
The decision of these particular judges is not final. They will meet again in May to discuss which events should be included in the 2020. They'll finalize the events in September, when they'll also decide whether Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo will be the host for the Games.
The IOC wants to cut one sport so that it can add another. So it is conceivable that wrestling will be reconsidered along with the new candidates: karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu (wushu?) and baseball/softball, which was voted out in 2005.
Among the criteria IOC members use to determine what should stay and what should go are television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policies and global popularity and participation.
TV? Over the years, wrestling has given television dozens of compelling stories, from Gable in 1972 to Jeff Blatnick in 1984 to Karelin in 1988 to Bruce Baumgartner in 1992 to Kurt Angle in 1996 to the debut of women in 2004 to American Jordan Burroughs in 2012, hugging Iranian Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi, the man he had beaten for the gold.
Ticket sales? If the IOC really cared about the box office, it would find better ways to maximize sales: tickets to high-profile London events like the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and gymnastics went unsold. Anti-doping policies? Wrestling may not be the cleanest sport in the world, but word has it that cycling is worse. Global popularity? Some 200 nations have wrestling programs. Plus, the sport of beach wrestling is on the rise for both men and women.
In a statement issued in the wake of the decision, USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said, "We look forward to telling the story about wrestling to the International Committee leadership and the entire world and why it should be part of the Olympic movement forever."
In explaining the IOC's recommendation, spokesman Mark Adams said, "This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics. It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling. It's what's right with the 25 core sports."
Here's what's really wrong with the deep six of wrestling. It's a great sport that attracts hundreds of thousands of competitors who are not in it for the money -- there's only one Kurt Angle -- but who are in it for the very ideal of the Olympics. By taking away the ultimate goal, an Olympic medal, the IOC will be subverting its own mission and destroying a sport that helped fuel its movement. It may as well add Stultius (dumber) to Citius, Altius, Fortius.
Maybe the question the IOC, and the rest of us, should be asking is why the austerity kick down to 25? If there are 26, or 27, or 30 sports worthy of consideration, why not find a way to include them all in the Olympics? Expand the schedule, as the IOC has before. Explore ways to make venues serve multiple purposes. Just as there's a place in the Olympics for both Bhutan and Brazil, there's a place for both the Chinese martial art of wushu and wrestling. And if a sport doesn't seem to fit, then get rid of it. We don't miss tug-of-war (kicked out after the 1920 Games).
We will miss wrestling.
What is the IOC thinking? The base of the Olympian column is tradition, and wrestling, be it freestyle or Greco-Roman, is something the ancient Greeks would recognize. The decision to drop wrestling is wrong.