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Wed February 20, 2013

A Fan's Notes: Wrestling With Decisions Of Olympic Proportions

American wrestler Rulon Gardner beat Russian Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games
American wrestler Rulon Gardner beat Russian Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games

Last week, the International Olympic Committee announced it will be taking wrestling to the mat--the 2016 Games will be the last for the ancient sport. But with March Madness approaching and spring training already underway, why should the casual fan care? Commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month's edition of  A Fan's Notes.

Like most Americans, I reacted to last week’s news that the International Olympic Committee will purge wrestling after the next Summer Games with vaguely amused confusion. I mean, if Olympic tradition is rooted in ancient Greece, what’s more anciently Greek than two half-naked men grappling on the ground? It was baffling. The sports cognoscenti reacted as Socrates might have: “All I know is that I know nothing.”

Of course, the Olympics have long strayed from their roots in search of acceptance by the cool kids. That’s why the Winter Games now look more like the X Games, and the summer Olympiads can seem like scrimmages for celebrity soccer divas and NBA All-Stars.

True to form, the IOC justified this latest move by saying it wanted its games to “remain relevant to sports fans of all generations.” Apparently, that doesn’t include all the generations since 708 B.C., when wrestling made its debut at the ancient Olympics.

However, as a sports fan myself of a particular generation, I’ll admit that wrestling is not terribly relevant to me. The very word first conjures images of juiced-up giants in gaudy costumes bashing each other with metal folding chairs.

But real wrestling isn’t just for Russians and Bulgarians; it’s a huge part of our Olympic tradition, too. Only swimmers and track athletes have won more gold medals for the U.S. than American wrestlers have.

And one of the greatest moments in American Olympic history, and perhaps the greatest Olympic upset of all time, came not with the 1980 ice-hockey win over the Soviets, but 20 years later when an unknown Wyoming farm boy outwrestled an indomitable Russian who had never lost in international competition. The great Alexander Karelin hadn’t even surrendered a single point in six years—until Rulon Gardner beat him 1-0, in “The Miracle on the Mat.”

Even casual fans can appreciate a moment like that, which is why we know this verdict is kind of big deal, like if baseball cancelled the World Series, or the lights went out—and stayed out—on the Super Bowl.

Nationwide, about 300,000 high-school wrestlers hit the mats this year, including some 10,000 girls. The IOC’s announcement came just a day before the Missouri High School Wrestling Championships. The Kansas tournament takes place this weekend. More than 5,000 high-school athletes wrestled in Kansas last year, about the same number as played baseball.

It’s hard to think they won’t now have just a little less to strive for. And that’s why this is a bummer: not because it violates some sacred Olympic tradition, but because it rips a tear in the collective sports dream.

Without an Olympic goal, there’s little reason for most wrestlers to keep competing past college. Programs will be cut, and wrestling could slowly fade away from the competitive sports world. Some kids may still want to be Hulk Hogan, but that’s a very different dream.

The miraculous Rulon Gardner, meanwhile, is taking the lead on the fight to save his Olympic sport, which will now vie for one last shot to be added back to the 2020 games. The IOC will make a recommendation in May, with the final vote in September. It doesn’t look good, but Gardner is hoping for one more upset.

And at least this time, he’ll have otherwise unlikely allies, including his Russian nemeses—and even Iran, where tomorrow American wrestlers will compete in the Freestyle World Cup. “If we don't fight, we’re going to die,” Gardner told the Associated Press. “We need to pull everyone in the world together.”

That’s a nice idea. But then, this is the Olympics we’re talking about.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.  You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.

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