By Kurt Ullrich
A very long time ago, I was a pretty fair wrestler, winning more often than losing, and thrilled to watch my mother attach medals to the letter on my jacket. That doesn’t make me an expert on anything.
However, I think it gives me a tiny bit of insight into the sport, and why it’s important, not just to Iowa, but to young people in general.
Wrestling is not, in the strictest sense, a team sport. When one jogs onto a fully illuminated center mat in a darkened gymnasium on a cold winter’s night, it is quite clear that whatever is going to happen next rests on the shoulders of two lone combatants, and turning to one’s teammates is no help.
Wrestlers are all too often considered by many to be thugs and punks, a stereotypical view not always helped by the utterances of University of Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands, a man with great passion, albeit in a Faulknerian run-on-sentence sort of way.
Male wrestlers have nearly always been considered bad boys, boys likely to get into trouble — quiet, rather unstable loners whom mothers don’t want their daughters to date, let alone marry.
Is there truth in any of this? Maybe a little. However, a larger truth wills out and will continue to do so as long as young people step on to a mat to accept the in-your-face challenge of another.
Discounting intensely focused, talented, driven, and perhaps a little nutty, purveyors like Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable, most wrestlers know that on any given day they are putting themselves in a position to get their respective butts kicked. Losing is no small thing.
My experience tells me that former wrestlers turn out well, because they have learned to push past defeat. Some of the most well-adjusted people I know are erstwhile wrestlers, many in my age group now looking at retirement, men who cried uncle more often than they cared to; men who got up after a loss, shook the other guy’s hand, and went at it again next time around. Learn to lose and the only specter who will ever gain nearfall points against you is death, because the rest is easy.
It’s an extraordinary extracurricular lesson.
So now I read that the International Olympic Committee has voted to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics. Am I happy about it? Absolutely not. But I understand it. It’s a business decision based upon the sport’s popularity, its ability to make money, and some undoubted internal politics. Welcome to the new world, my friends.
The decision doesn’t make the sport any less important and it certainly won’t affect the high school wrestlers who, like me, enjoyed a sport, unmindful of the Olympics. Only a tiny fraction of high school wrestlers plan to wrestle in college, and an even tinier fraction will aspire to be Olympians, most not making it.
So to the folks who are unhappy about the IOC’s vote, I say: To the breach, my friends. Be sure to register your feelings, fight hard for your beliefs, but don’t get weird about it. Shake hands when this match is over, and urge your children and grandchildren to become wrestlers.
And to any politician, such as Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who claims to be “outraged” at the IOC’s call? Such hyperbole is unbecoming.
Save your outrage and moral posturing for stuff that matters, perhaps for the millions of women in the world who still can’t vote, for the innocent people being slaughtered by rebels in South Sudan, and for the thousands dying every day on this earth for want of food and clean water. Outrage indeed.
Kurt Ullrich is a freelance writer who lives in rural Jackson County. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org