The 2020 Olympics are still a ways off, but the International Olympics Committee knows how to stay in the news, for better or for worse. Here’s something firmly in the category of “worse”: the IOC has dropped wrestling from those Games, meaning that, barring an unlikely turn of events, the 2016 Rio Olympics will be wrestling’s last. This is insane. Here’s why.
Cave drawings of wrestling scenes go back 15,000 years, and there are depictions of ancient societies using basically the same techniques that are still popular today. Wrestling was the marquee event in the original Greek Olympic Games and a major part of the first reinvigorated Games starting in 1896. As a symbol of the legacy of sport in human culture, wrestling is completely unrivaled, and for the IOC to jettison it now is to turn its back on the thing it’s meant to be protecting.
2. Wrestling Has Given Us Some Of Our Greatest Olympic Heroes
In a gold medal match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, American wrestler Rulon Gardner, who hailed from a farm in Wyoming, upset Alexander Karelin, a Russian titan who hadn’t lost in 13 years. Gardner is one of the greatest Olympians in American history and his gold medal an almost unrivaled story in the legacy of the Games. Without wrestling, we don’t have Rulon Gardners, or Alexander Karelins, or Cael Sanderson, who went 159-0 in college before winning gold in 2004.
3. Wrestling’s One-On-One Nature Is Perfect For The Olympics
The Olympics are fundamentally about pitting different people from around the world in constructive, friendly rivalry. This isn’t just some happy PR spin; through a century of war and international conflict, the Olympics have forced numerous countries in political deadlock to join together in the name of sport. And few events at the Games are better for that than wrestling, which, because of its one-on-one nature, becomes symbolic in a way other sports cannot. Each combatant stands in for his nation, and this can produce moments like the one above, from the 2012 Games, when American Jordan Burroughs beat Iran’s Sadegh Goudarszi for a gold medal and then embraced him after the match.
4. Wrestling Still Has A Huge Place In Culture
OK, let’s be real for a second: how many people did you know in high school who were modern pentathletes? Or who rode equestrian? It’s not that these sports aren’t legitimate pursuits with enthusiastic followings — it’s that their followings aren’t nearly as enthusiastic, egalitarian, or widespread as wrestling’s. The sport is still thriving: according to a recent survey, there were more than 270,000 American high school wrestlers in 2010-11, a 19.8% increase on the year before. 44 countries were represented by 344 athletes in wrestling at the 2012 London Games.
5. Wrestling Makes Way More Sense Than Wakeboarding In The Olympics, For God’s Sake
If you thought wrestling seemed expendable when thinking about it in isolation, you might change your mind when you hear the sports they’re thinking of to replace it. Baseball — OK, that makes sense, although team sports whose pro athletes have bigger fish to fry during the summer are cumbersome for the Olympics to include. But the options to replace wrestling are bizarre. Roller sports? Sport climbing? Wakeboarding? I don’t even really understand what wakeboarding as an Olympic sport would be — it’s having a trial in 2016, and will apparently involve judges evaluating two runs by each athlete based on the quality of tricks performed. If the Olympics want to chase ratings, which seems completely incongruous with the mission of the Olympics, then fine, turn into the X-Games — not that there’s anything wrong with the X-Games on their own. They just have a different mission than the Olympics do, and the Olympics mission would be badly served by jettisoning a culturally significant sport like wrestling for an upstart water sport like wakeboarding.