By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TACOMA — On a weekend when Washington’s state wrestling tournament was celebrating its 25th year, one unfortunate distraction hung over Mat Classic XXV.
No really, it was hanging there from the Tacoma Dome’s upper deck, a big banner that read, “Save Olympic Wrestling.”
Earlier this week, as hundreds of wrestlers prepared for state, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted to eliminate one of the Olympics’ oldest sports after the 2016 Games. And while that vote did not seal wrestling’s Olympic fate — a final vote will be held in September — it did deal a huge blow to the sport.
“It’s a tough blow,” said Marysville Pilchuck coach Craig Iversen. “Our sport is very successful. We’re filling up the Tacoma Dome, kids are excited to be here, and for the top level to not be recognized would very damaging to this sport.”
Losing Olympic wrestling would be damaging not because a bunch of the kids competing this weekend have that in their future, but because of the ripple effect that would occur if the sport’s most visible stage was taken away. For years, the number of colleges offering wrestling has been shrinking, and that trend would likely only worsen if the sport is dropped at its highest level.
“Many colleges keep wrestling because it’s an Olympic sport,” said longtime Lake Stevens coach Brent Barnes. “If it’s no longer an Olympic sport, it will definitely have a ripple effect.”
And as Lake Stevens junior Logan Johnson points out, he and most everyone else here know the Olympics aren’t in their future, but that doesn’t mean kids getting into the sport shouldn’t have that as a dream like he did when he began wrestling years ago.
“That goal should be there for kids,” he said.
If wrestling, a sport that can trace its Olympic origins to 708 B.C., is eliminated, it will go down as one of the dumbest, biggest money-driven moves in Olympic history. And that’s saying something. After all, it was just three years ago that Vancouver Winter Olympic organizers had a public relations nightmare on their hands when it became evident that the standing-room-only space they had sold for events at Cypress Mountain did not exist because there wasn’t enough snow to cover the hay bales on which fans were supposed to stand. So yeah, the bar’s been set pretty low, yet the IOC seems hell-bent on slithering under it.
In the past, Olympic events have been eliminated because too few countries can compete. But while that may have been the reason for softball’s elimination, that is most definitely not the case with wrestling. In London last summer, wrestlers from 22 different countries medaled, and 14 countries earned multiple medals. Four years earlier, athletes from 28 different countries medaled. Yes, Russia seems to always take home the most wrestling medals, but this sport is as diverse — 71 countries were represented in last year’s games, and women’s wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in this country and many others — and competitive as there is at the Olympics.
“It’s truly an international sport,” Barnes said. “It drew from more countries than any other sport at the last Olympics. Knowing that, the diversity of it, women, men, all ethnic backgrounds, all sizes and shapes, it is a unique sport that way.
Despite all of that, wrestling is very much in danger, and sadly, the reason is almost entirely financial. Wrestling wasn’t a top-selling ticket in London, and it doesn’t get good TV ratings, so if it can be replaced with something newer and flashier that will produce ratings, the IOC says to heck with history and tradition.
“It’s stupid,” said Lake Stevens senior Eric Soler. “I’m pretty sure the Olympics used to be, what, wrestling and running?”
See, the kids get it. So why can’t the IOC? Oh yeah, money. So much good comes from the Olympics, but more than ever, it’s a bottom-line-driven entity, just like nearly every other sport we watch. Two years ago, NBC Universal bid $4.38 billion for Olympic broadcasting rights through 2020, and that’s just for this country. And apparently if a few more bucks can be squeezed out of the Olympics, well, what’s a few thousand years of history, right?
Fortunately wrestling still has a shot. Just as it was the talk of the Mat Classic, this topic has been a big talking point all around the country, not just in the wrestling community, but also for athletes ranging from NFL Pro Bowlers like Roddy White, a former high school wrestler, to winter-sport athletes who are standing up for their summer-Olympic brethren. And that’s just in this country.
“It’s not done yet,” Barnes said. “The outcry around the world is pretty loud right now, and hopefully people can maintain that until they have a vote in September.”
Hopefully the IOC can get this one right. Why can’t a new event be added — that was the impetus for voting on a sport’s removal — without eliminating one? And if a sport absolutely has to be eliminated, why in the world does wrestling get the axe over something like modern pentathlon? And while we’re at it, should we really be referring to a sport as “modern” when it debuted at the 1912 Olympics? Or why can’t we eliminate trampoline, an event that most closely resembles, well, practice for other sports that involve flipping?
But if Tuesday’s vote was the beginning of the end for Olympic wrestling, the impact will be felt at all levels, from the world’s best wrestlers who are medal hopefuls, to the kids just hoping to survive until the second day at state.
“It’s a crying shame,” said Stanwood coach Ray Mather. “It’s going to hurt a lot.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.