Olympic wrestling decision makes waves in Iowa

One of the first things a wrestler learns is never give up.

“Get off your back, stand up and fight to be free,” Mike Chapman, founder of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, said of the drive.

Lately, wrestling aficionados have had to do just that. With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announcing the elimination of the age-old sport from the 2020 games, many enthusiasts are outraged.

The IOC voted in several rounds on secret ballots last week to eliminate one of the 26 sports from the 2020 summer games. Wrestling got the kibosh in lieu of lesser-known sports such as pentathlon, removing it from the list of 25 “core sports” in the summer games to take place in a yet-to-be-decided city.

According to IOC documents, wrestling’s popularity is low when analyzed using 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, global participation and popularity.

Still, Mark Adams, a spokesperson for the IOC, said the decision had nothing to do with the sport’s shortcomings. Instead, he said after the decision, the choice was made to benefit other sports in the Olympic rotation.

Despite claims of wrestling’s lack of popularity, at the 2012 summer games in London, vendors sold nearly 114,000 of 116,854 wrestling tickets.

Chapman said the vote has more to do with political posturing than what is best for the Olympics.

“It’s simply incomprehensible. Wrestling goes back 5,000 years,” Chapman said. “The IOC considers itself royalty, and they rule their world with an iron fist.”

Wrestling has been included in the summer Olympics since the 1896 inauguration of the modern games in Athens.

Mike Mann, wrestling coach at Marshalltown High School, said quashing the sport will likely have a trickle-down effect, shaping high school and college programs in unforeseen ways.

“It kind of takes the wind out of their sails,” he said of young wrestlers.

Although few young wrestlers aspire to be Olympians, having the sport on such a grand stage spurs interest, he added.

Gov. Terry Branstad showed his support of Iowa’s wrestling roots Feb. 15 at the Iowa State High School Wrestling Tournament in Des Moines by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Let’s keep wrestling.” Iowa’s first Olympian, Allie Morrison, hailed from Marshalltown. He was a wrestler, and took home the gold in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

A large part of the decision to give wrestling the axe, Chapman said, is that the Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) hasn’t made strong lobbying effort over the years. The group’s president resigned after 11 years just days after the IOC’s announcement to exclude wrestling from the sports guaranteed a berth in 2020 games.

While wrestling will still have a national championship like it does every year, it will no longer benefit from the pageantry and brand association of the Olympics if eliminated from the games.

“It just takes that extra mystique out of it,” Mann said.

The IOC will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia in May to vote whether to accept board’s recommendation. The final decision will be made in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Chapman said the decision whether to use the board’s recommendation or ignore it might come down to how much influence Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has. Russia is one of the largest of the 177 FILA member countries, and wresting is popular there.

Conversely, pentathlon, which has been an Olympic event since 1912, has 108 member countries.

Wresting joins seven other sports not considered “core” vying for the lone slot in the 2020 games.

Dwindling match times and talk of eliminating one of the styles – either the traditional Greco-Roman, more popular in former Soviet nations, or the more modern freestyle, popular in the United States – have portended the potential end of wrestling in the Olympics, Chapman said.

Chapman said the solution to returning wrestling to the Olympic landscape is threefold: public awareness, a unified diplomatic approach and changes in FILA’s leadership. The alternative, allowing it to wither from the rotation after 5,000 years, is unacceptable.

After all, wrestling’s roots are as old as any sport’s. It’s even in the Bible.

“When God All Mighty sent down an angel, he didn’t send him down to play golf,” Chapman said. “He sent him down to wrestle Jacob.”