Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers and former collegiate mat stars Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson, Rulon Gardner and John Smith are among the individuals reacting to Tuesday’s decision by the International Olympic Committee to eliminate all wrestling competition at the Olympics, beginning with the 2020 Summer Games.
“It’s obviously one of my worst nightmares,” said Gable, the 1972 Olympic freestyle wrestling champion and Iowa State mat champ who went on coach at the University of Iowa from 1976-1997.
“I haven’t been coaching for a long time, but I spend my working hours on the sport,” Gable continued. “I’ll continue to do that. Hopefully, it’s a major wake-up call that we can work through.”
Sanderson, head coach of defending NCAA team titlewinners Penn State who won freestyle gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said of Olympic wrestling, “This is every wrestlers’ dream. … It’s like the World Cup of soccer. It’s the greatest event. It’s the most prestigious and premiere. It’s the very top of the pyramid. It’s the Super Bowl. It’s only once every four years.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of kids out there where if that were to happen, they don’t have that World Cup of soccer,” said the four-time NCAA champ for Iowa State (1999-2002), drawing a comparison of wrestling losing its showcase event. “Just the thought is definitely a tragedy. But I think wrestling is very strong worldwide, and we’re going to find out just how strong.”
Gardner, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in wrestling when he defeated Russia’s Alexander Karelin to win the gold medal in Greco-Roman superheavyweight competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, told The Associated Press, “It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports.”
“We need to show the IOC the value of wrestling,” Gardner, an NCAA All-American heavyweight at the University of Nebraska, continued. “There were medalists from 28 different countries at the Olympics in London, and there is obviously great diversity in our sport. It is a sport that has huge interest and participation numbers around the world. It is a sport that has significant historical value as one of the first Olympic sports.”
Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in 1988 and 1992, addressed the worldwide impact of the decision, saying, “Our sport is diversified. We have almost 200 countries that participate in wrestling. Comparing that with the other core sports in the Olympics, it’s one of the highest. We meet the IOC’s criteria of being an Olympic sport. We’re up at the top in several of those categories. That’s diversity and participation throughout the world.”
Clarissa Chun, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist for the U.S. in women’s freestyle, echoed coach Smith’s comments on diversity, saying, “Wrestling has provided so many great opportunities for so many people. Women’s wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. Wrestling is the purest form of athleticism, where it’s one-on-one competition to determine who is the best.”
Two U.S. Olympic gold medalists addressed the health of wrestling.
Henry Cejudo, 2008 Olympic gold medalist for the U.S., said, “Wrestling isn’t a dying sport – it’s a growing sport around the world. We’ve got to fight for this and find out more about what we can do to influence the IOC to keep wrestling in the Olympics.”
Coach Smith, the former Oklahoma State NCAA wrestling champ who has been head coach of the Cowboys since 1992, also discussed the strength of amateur wrestling in the U.S.
“Remember that Olympic wrestling and high school, college and youth wrestling are two different worlds… In high school wrestling, we’ve grown over this last decade by 40,000 plus athletes. We’ve added 95 college programs in all divisions over the last 10 to 12 years. Wrestling throughout the United States is very strong.”
Jake Herbert, 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s freestyle team member and two-time NCAA champ for Northwestern University, put the fight in terms that any wrestler can understand, saying, “We’re wrestlers. It’s the third period, we’re down by one and this is what we train for. We’re going to fight this. We are the purest Olympic sport and one of the largest sports we have. Wrestling is the Olympics. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most demanding and most humbling sport there is. It teaches you so many life lessons.”
“Wrestling has worldwide support,” Herbert continued. “Countries like Iran and Azerbaijan and Russia, they are going to fight for this as well. It’s not done yet. We need to fight for this and do everything we can to save wrestling”
In reviewing the 26 sports currently on the roster at the Olympics, the IOC executive board, meeting in Switzerland, decided to retain modern pentathlon — the event considered most at risk — and remove all forms of wrestling, which incorporates men’s and women’s freestyle competition, as well as Greco-Roman for men, effective for the 2020 Olympics.
Wrestling, which traces its roots to ancient times in various societies around the world, has been part of the modern Olympics since the inaugural Games in 1896.
Tuesday’s IOC announcement isn’t the final word on the matter. As United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a written statement, “It is important to remember that today’s action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world.”
Listen to other voices on the IOC decision: Takedown Wrestling’s Scott Casber has conducted audio interviews with Russ Hellickson, Eric Guerrero, Kevin Jackson and others.
Want you can do to help: Wrestling fans upset by the IOC decision can sign an online petition… “like” the new “Saving Olympic Wrestling” Facebook page… contact Olympic “partners” (sponsor/advertisers)… and, when discussing the situation with others, can refer to USA Wrestling’s Talking Points.
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