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.
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.
In 13 years of watching my three sons wrestle, I learned quickly that people commonly mistake youth and high school wrestling for the clownish, steroid-pumped fights of platinum-blonde professional WWF wrestling on television.
In reality, each match offers the possibility of an intense one-on-one scramble and then the thud of an official pin – a referee’s slam of his open hand on the mat signaling a boy or girl has been pinned and the match is over. Then, the victor’s hand is thrust into the air by the ref like an exclamation point.
According to the National Federation of High Schools, nearly 57,000 more American high school athletes wrestle than play golf, a sport that the International Olympic Committee plans to keep in the summer mix. There are 13 times more high-school wrestlers in this country than gymnasts in high schools, and nearly the same number of wrestlers as swimmers and divers at the high school level.
All my sons wrestled in youth competitions from about the age of 10 on through high school (my oldest wrestled in his first year of college at University of Wisconsin-Madison). Wrestling taught them a great deal about resilience, humility, and discipline. They learned to connect their behavior directly to an outcome. At first, they simply didn’t want to let down their coach, and then their team. Ultimately they learned they never want to let down themselves. If only every young man and woman could learn such life skills.
Earlier this month, 11 local wrestlers at Oak Park-River Forest High followed in hometown Olympic-wrestler Ellis Coleman’s footsteps and competed in the individual state championships; five placed. Leading up to the team state championships this past weekend, the team ranked No. 1 in Illinois, but lost in the first round of the tournament. They were accompanied by head coach, Mike Powell, an inspiring man honored by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and featured on ESPN, and a man I believe is responsible for shaping my boys – and hundreds of others – into good men.
The NCAA lists 79 wrestling college programs in Division I schools, whose wrestlers now will have nowhere to go to wrestle after they graduate. But for many athletes, the Olympic wrestling dream begins long before then, at about age five. USA Wrestling ranks youth wrestlers around the country on a page titled, U.S. Future Olympian Rankings. They will need to rename the listing.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus wrestled his own father, Kronos, for the throne of Mount Olympus and won. Another win is needed now, perhaps with stakes as high or higher – the dreams of hundreds of thousands of athletes across the globe.
I suggest that every youth, high school, college, or former wrestler, every wrestling mom or dad, plus each coach from any of 200 countries where wrestling is a treasured sport join in the effort to keep wrestling in the Olympics. The match isn’t over yet; there is still time on the clock.
Michele Weldon is an author, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, and a seminar leader at The OpEd Project. She recently completed a memoir on raising her wrestler sons alone and launched the website Wrestling Mom in 2008.