February 23, 2013

A new “wrestling mom” asks: WTF is up with dumping wrestling as an Olympic sport?



I don’t yet have the sequin-encrusted sweatshirt that spells out “Wrestling Mom” but the high school wrestling world has taken hold of our lives over the past few months. And, I say this just as the season is ending and outcry grows over the idiotic decision by the International Olympic Committee decided to drop wrestling as one of the core Olympic sports.

I knew next to nothing about wrestling before my son started practice in the fall. I knew that the sport is the stuff of myth, legend and literature. My son’s coach said when we first met, “Wrestling is like life.” I came across a similar quote from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”

I am still learning how a wrestler scores points for takedowns and escapes,  as well as the sometimes subtle distinctions of what constitutes a “pin” – that point at which wrestler has forced his opponent onto his back and rendered him absolutely incapable of escape.

The wrestling I’ve been watching in high school gyms has nothing to do with celebrity wrestlers with monikers like “Hulk” or “The Rock” slamming each other around like bumper cars. What I’ve witnessed is something more artful, intense and exciting.

I’m talking about “real” wrestling, in the words of CNN columnist Mike Downey, one of the many sports writers, Olympians and other fans, like author John Irving—a National Wrestling Hall of Fame former wrestler and coach—who have been raising serious questions against the IOC’s decision. 

“Somewhere among the gods, Hercules weeps,” Downey wrote.

They all point out what I’ve discovered, or more importantly, what my son has discovered – that wrestling is an absolutely elemental sport, and it’s pretty cool for that reason. Like running, you don’t need special equipment. Part of the Olympic Games since 708 BCE, wrestling is essentially hand-to-hand combat, totally mano a mano. It is based on the rudimentary effort of one athlete trying to subdue another “not with equipment but with the fundamental use of arms, upper body and legs,” writes Jere Longman in the New York Times.

Because of its simplicity, it has broad appeal internationally. Irving, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, says 180 countries wrestle. Wrestlers from 70 countries went to the London Olympics, earning their spots in the games after winning some of the toughest qualifying tournaments in the world.  The United States, he adds, has won the most Olympic medals in wrestling (100, according to another story), but Russia currently dominates. Other medal winners come from Cuba, Finland, Turkey and South Korea and more recently from the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan. Two of the best wrestlers on my son’s team at Las Lomas High are brothers from Uzbekistan. They are among my son’s 10 teammates who qualified for the North Coast championships this weekend.

The I.O.C. has said it wants to get younger viewers watching the Olympics on TV and to make the Games remain “relevant to sports fans of all generations.” (So is that the reason so much of primetime Olympic TV coverage is devoted to beach volleyball?)

Well, how is wrestling not relevant, especially in the United States? Irving says high school participation has expanded by 40,000 wrestlers in the last decade.

Moreover, more than 270,000 high school students wrestle, including more than 8,200 women. That’s right. Wrestling isn’t just for boys. And, I saw some of those very agile, tough young women go at it in matches at some of the duel meets and tournaments I attended. 

There is talk among wrestling circles about doing a better job of selling the sport and making it attractive to TV audiences. 

Well, it certainly has all the ingredients to attract TV audiences. Once you watch a few matches, pitting two very good male or female wrestlers against each other, you can become hooked.

For one thing, these athletes are in incredible shape and come in all sizes, from lithe and petite like gymnasts to big and buff like football linemen. Before my son signed up for wrestling, we were told that the conditioning delivers some of the toughest workouts of any sport.

To defeat their opponents, these athletes must employ speed, agility, and brute force. But cunning and strategy are also involved. Aren’t those qualities you look for in reality TV?

Wrestling regularly delivers emotionally wrenching, nail-biting moments, notably when there are 30 seconds left in the third and final period of a match, and the athletes are tied in points. A millisecond of letting down one’s guard can decide a match, especially when a wrestler is pressing in for the pin. Intense focus of mind and body are needed. All that focus is poured into intense bursts that last two minutes.

Another major argument in support of keeping wrestling in the Olympics is that the Games are wrestling’s ultimate competition, which isn’t the case for other Olympic sports, like soccer and basketball.

Well, the IOC’s decision, which could still be appealed, won’t dampen the enthusiasm of the athletes I’ve seen at tournaments in high school gymnasiums around the East Bay.

The international appeal of wrestling is reflected in the racial and socioeconomic diversity of wrestlers at these tournaments. They come from public and private high schools from all parts of the East Bay: from affluent Danville to Emeryville, a city of 21st century progress whose public school district nonetheless serves mostly poor, minority kids.

It’s been stirring to watch these kids from all different backgrounds go to the mats, and, for those few short minutes, put their entire bodies and souls into a battle of trying to take each other down. It’s hard not to think of what my Marcus Aurelius or my son’s coach said about wrestling being about life.

When the ref blows the final whistle, then raises the hand of the winner, the two competitors shake hands respectfully and move on to the next round. Yeah, that’s life.

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