The Summer Games became a little less special this week as the International Olympic Committee continues to cast the amateur athletics ideal onto the trash heap.
The 15-member board of the Olympics governing body voted to eliminate wrestling from the program in 2020 in order to keep the number of “core sports” at its arbitrarily established figure of 25.
Thus, wrestlers who have devoted years of training and sacrifice for one pinnacle moment every four years will have their dreams dashed after 2016 in Brazil to make room for Tiger Woods and 59 other golfers compete in an event that means way less to them than four major championships annually.
“It really saddens me to know they can take a sport that at the beginning when the Olympics were even established, wrestling was part of it,” said Reese Hoffa, a former wrestler at Lakeside High School before becoming a three-time Olympian in the shot put. “All of the sudden you’re going to take it out for whatever reason because you want to add a sport that’s a little bit more popular? Wrestling, like track and field, are traditional Olympics sports.”
Frankly it doesn’t get more “core” than wrestling. It’s the kind of fundamental sport that defines the Olympics, showcasing athletes who the general public cares little about in the intervening years each olympiad.
Hoffa, who won a bronze medal in shot put last summer in London, has a special connection to the ancient Olympics. The former Georgia all-American walked through the ruined stone arches and tunnels of the original stadium in Olympia, Greece, to compete in the shot put at the 2004 Olympics. On the grounds where he threw in his first of three Summer Games, wrestling was first introduced in 708 B.C. as part of the ancient pentathlon (which also included sprint, long jump, javelin and discus).
He called that experience “overwhelming.”
Now Hoffa can’t imagine that incentive of the Olympics being ripped from his wrestling brethren.
“Taking that opportunity away, what are these kids going to do in Iowa and Pennsylvania and all across the U.S. who wrestle from the time they’re 4 or 5 and have that dream of being in the Olympics and all the sudden that dream is taken out and never clearly explained why it was taken out?” Hoffa said.
Wrestling not only dates back as one of the 10 original sports in the first modern Olympics in 1896, it goes all the way back to the ancient games that birthed the whole idea of peaceful international competition. It hasn’t changed all that much in the 2,700 intervening years other than the fact that modern grapplers aren’t nude and it ends before the loser admits defeat.
Perhaps its most storied practitioner about 2,500 years before Rulon Gardner was Milo of Croton, a six-time Olympic victor often depicted in ancient art and sculpture. Milo lost his bid for a seventh Olympic victory in 516 B.C. when a fellow Crotonian avoided his crushing embrace with a strategy called akrocheirismos – wrestling at arm’s length, sort of the grappling precursor to Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope.
Legend has it that Milo once carried a bull on his shoulders – a feat that probably would make the IOC reconsider the sport’s modern appeal. Before being eaten alive by a pack of wolves when his hands got stuck in a tree trunk he was trying to rip apart, Milo was said to have saved the life of Pythagoras by supporting the roof of a banquet hall after a pillar collapse.
So, basically, thanks to an Olympic wrestler, we now know that the square of the hypotenuse in a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two legs. You’re welcome, mathematicians.
When the modern Olympics returned to Greece in 1896, it was wrestling that produced the most decorated athlete. Carl Schuhmann, of Germany, had already won three medals in gymnastics before entering the wrestling competition. In the final, he defeated Georgios Tsitas, of Greece, in a marathon match that lasted for 40 minutes before being postponed until the next morning because of darkness.
Now after all these years and all that history, the IOC can arbitrarily ax a sport that was just too fundamental for its own good.
What’s next, the marathon?
Hoffa finds the whole thing disconcerting and hopes that more sensible minds prevail. As of now, wrestling will have to compete in September with seven other sports including a combined baseball/softball bid for one spot back into the Olympic limelight. There should be room for wrestling to coexist with BMX racing, badminton, modern pentathlon and golf on the Olympic stage.
“I really hope they reconsider,” Hoffa said. “I don’t want to see any sport taken out of the Olympics. I think targeting or even attempting to take wrestling out is a horrible move for the IOC. It makes them look bad because this is a traditional sport.”
In the end, it reveals that the IOC doesn’t really care about the amateur ideal and is all about making money.
“The Olympics is moving in a different direction, trying to be more profitable,” Hoffa said. “It’s more about superstar athletes in the Olympics. Basically making it more of a value brand.”
Despite the money and effort that American TV dumps into it, that value diminishes a little more every four years because of short-sighted leadership.