IOWA CITY — Wrestling got pinned without seeing it coming.
Yet, University of Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands may have said it best for his sport when it came to Tuesday’s announcement from the International Olympic Committee that wrestling would be dropped from the 2020 Summer Games.
“I’m surprised that I’m surprised,” said the 1996 Olympic gold-medalist.
“Maybe some of these other sports that were saved that were on the cutting block, they even say that they did their job politically, they did their job smoothing things out. I don’t know if wrestling did that. I don’t know if it’s arrogance on our part.
“The warning signs were there, though. Maybe subtly, but they were there.”
(NOTE: I orginally typed “suddenly” in the text. Brands said “subtly.”)
As far back as 2002, the IOC expressed concerns about wrestling’s relatively low profile in the media. Translation: It didn’t play well on television.
Wrestling fans will seethe at that. NBC executives would tell them their sport makes no ripples with the American viewing audience, who go nuts for swimming and gymnastics once every four years.
Cael Sanderson, the undefeated collegian at Iowa State, popped on and off of Olympic television quickly when he won his gold medal at 2004.
The last time wrestling got some of NBC’s barrage of back stories was probably 2000, when Rulon Gardner of the U.S. defeated Russia’s Alexander Karelin, a 3-time Greco-Roman gold-medalist who hadn’t been scored on in six years and hadn’t lost an international match in 13 years.
International wrestling has done itself no favors by both freestyle and Greco-Roman and expecting casual fans to figure out which was which. Compared to the folkstyle of high school and collegiate wrestling in the U.S., international wrestling is dull and even weird in its ways.
It seems every rule-change made by FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, has only made the matches more confusing and less enjoyable. The 2012 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials drew 54,766 fans over its four sessions in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. As enthused as people were to attend the event, many were left cold by some of the rules.
“I’ve been to 44 NCAA Tournaments, said wrestling historian/author Mike Chapman of Newton. “It’s been my passion for a half-century. I’ve lost interest in international wrestling. Four-minute matches (bouts with the winner the first to win two 2-minute periods) aren’t matches of endurance. And they have preposterous ways of determining matches.”
But hey, Olympic gymnastics and diving have judging that often is dubious at best. It’s absurd the IOC would ditch wrestling in favor of some of the beyond-niche sports it is keeping. The final cut came between wrestling and modern pentathlon, something that requires explaining every time it is mentioned.
It’s a combination of pistol-shooting, fencing, 200-meter freestyle swimming, show-jumping, and a 3-kilometer cross country run. Never in your life have you ever heard anyone say, “I’m a modern pentathlon fan.”
But Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., is vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union and a member of the IOC board. His father was the IOC president for 21 years. Plus, very few wrestling-rich nations have representatives on the IOC’s executive committee.
Ding, ding, ding. That’s the Olympics, folks.
Wrestling shouldn’t need defending. It is enormously popular in eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Canada and Cuba. The U.S. has won more medals in wrestling than any Olympic sports other than swimming and track and field. The sport has been part of the Olympics since the modern Games began in 1896, and it goes back a whole lot of centuries before that.
“It’s the world’s oldest sport,” said Hawkeyes senior wrestler Matt McDonough, who hopes to compete in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympics. “It’s in the Bible.”
“This sport has a heritage no other sport can match,” Chapman said.
But beach volleyball and table tennis and equestrian dressage and team handball and trampoline endure as Olympic sports. It took Tuesday’s IOC decision to get ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” co-hosts talking about the sport, and both were hopping mad.
“You can’t just take wrestling out of the Olympics,” Tony Kornheiser said. “You just can’t do it.”
“It’s a travesty,” Michael Wilbon added. “They have done some moronic things in the past, but this is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.”
That said, wrestling’s only hope to get back in the Olympics now is to compete like, well, wrestlers. The IOC will add one sport to the 2020 Summer Games this September. Wrestling will join baseball/softball, climbing, karate, roller sports, squash, wakeboarding and a Chinese martial art called wushu as sports making their cases.
Petitions signed by countless wrestling fans won’t get the job done. Neither will passionate pleas from wrestling’s top global names. It will take corporations who pump huge resources into the Olympic money machine to get on board and “persuade” the IOC to keep wrestling in favor of an X Game that attracts a younger television audience.
“This isn’t final, and that’s a good thing,” Brands said.
But the IOC has never been known to go back on decisions. If wrestling pulls this off, it will be a bigger upset than Gardner over Karelin.