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Opinion

Fallout from Olympic wrestling takedown – a mother's protest

There's been a furor over the decision not to guarantee wrestling a spot in the 2020 Olympics. Rightly so. I know first-hand what the sport does for young men (including my three sons) and an increasing number of young women. Fortunately, the decision is not final. It's time to speak out.

By Michele Weldon / February 25, 2013

Noel Torres celebrates a victory at the state wrestling meet in Wichita, Kan. Feb. 23. Op-ed contributor Michele Weldon the decision to drop wrestling's guaranteed spot in the 2020 Olympics 'not only kills [the Olympic] dream for American wrestlers, it dissolves the recognized importance of a sport that changes, enhances, and saves lives around the world' and 'could also decrease participation.'

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle/AP

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I’m the mom of a wrestling family. Last August, two of my sons – both former high school wrestlers – went to the London Olympics to root for our local star, Ellis Coleman, a.k.a., the “flying squirrel,” who wrestled Greco Roman. He didn’t win – in fact, he lost early in the match. But he sure was planning on winning in 2016, 2020, and perhaps beyond.

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All that has changed.

The governing board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted by secret ballot Feb. 19 to exclude wrestling from its guaranteed slot in the 2020 summer games, reportedly to “modernize” the Olympics. If the decision is not overturned, wrestling will have to compete with seven other sports – from baseball to karate – for a berth in 2020.

The IOC expunged the sport that has been a mainstay of the Olympics since 1896, maintaining it wanted to focus on 25 core sports. IOC documents indicate that wrestling's popularity apparently doesn't rank that well based on 39 criteria including TV ratings, ticket sales, and global participation. But while the committee dropped wrestling, it preserved the modern pentathalon – a five-sport combination of fencing, shooting, horse jumping, swimming, and running.

During last summer's Olympic games, 58.5 million viewers watched Olympic wrestling on television at its highest point, with an average of 23 million viewers. Compare that to the 33.5 million people who watched the pentathalon at its highest viewership, with an average of 12.5 million viewers. As former wrestler John Irving points out in a Feb. 15 New York Times op-ed, there were 29 countries that produced medalists in wrestling at the 2012 games. Only 26 countries even participated in the pentathlon.

The International Olympic Committee's decision has been met globally with repugnance, disbelief, anger, and vigorous advocacy for a sport that goes back to the ancient games in Greece. As a result of the decision, the head of the international wrestling federation was fired, and 10 countries – including the United States and Russia – met in Iran last week to strategize on influencing the IOC at a meeting in May. A final decision will be made in September.

The fallout from the takedown of wrestling is a shock not only for the 344 Olympic wrestlers who competed in 2012 (including wrestlers from 29 countries who took home medals), but millions of young athletes, coaches, parents, and fans of amateur wrestling around the world.

More than 56,000 people have signed a petition on change.org. The Save Wrestling Facebook page has close to 41,000 members. My oldest son, Weldon, created a Facebook page, Olympic Wrestling Forever. While none of my sons made it to the Olympics, I know what amateur wrestling does for a young man and an increasing number of young women.

In the US, 272,000 young men and 8,200 young women compete on the high school level in wrestling, according to the National Federation of High Schools. Many of them dream of the Olympics. Eliminating the sport from the Olympics not only kills that dream for American wrestlers, it dissolves the recognized importance of a sport that changes, enhances, and saves lives around the world. Dropping the sport from the Olympics could also decrease participation, which, in the US, has expanded by 40,000 wresters over the past decade.

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