Sports history files: Grappling with an uncertain fate

For all of the conflicts between them — currently and over many decades — the United States and Russia have come together in recent months without hesitation over a single, perhaps surprising matter:

Preserving wrestling in the Olympics.

For the Americans, the strange bedfellow association extends to Iran, another powerhouse nation in a sport that the International Olympic Committee decided earlier this year to demote from its roster.

Wrestlers1But those collaborations, among others, have helped to give wrestling a fighting chance to stay in the picture. On Wednesday the IOC gave initial approval to reinstating wrestling for the 2020 Games.

A final decision won’t come until the fall, but efforts to reverse the IOC’s initial decision have included strong references to the sport’s venerable history, and not just in the Olympics.

The IOC’s initial action sent shock waves beyond the sport’s most avid advocates, for wrestling — both the freestyle and Greco-Roman varieties — has been on the Olympic roster since the inaugural games in Athens in 1896.

Dating back to early B.C. and the stuff of Homeric legend, wrestling represents one of man’s primal instincts. American sports journalists, some of them wrestlers in their youth who benefitted from the modern-day discipline of the sport, referenced this quite often in recent months.

With the IOC adding non-traditional sports like golf and keeping another Olympic original, modern pentathlon, that doesn’t come close to enjoying wrestling’s popularity, the criticism and scrutiny have increased.

Another former wrestler, novelist John Irving, has been one of the foremost voices making a cultural argument on behalf of the sport. In February, the inductee of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame took to the pages of The New York Times and couldn’t hide his bitterness:

In the ancient Games — as early as 708 B.C. — they were wrestling. Granted, some of those early wrestling matches were settled by brutal means; many matches ended in death. Think what matches ending in death might do for wrestling’s TV ratings. Death would beat the ball draw, or the clinch; almost everyone can understand death.

This was in a bit of jest, of course, but Irving’s passion for the sport has long spread to his literary work. About his latest novel, “In One Person,” Jon Michaud wrote on The New Yorker website that “wrestling has rarely served Irving better than it does in this book,” and highlights this paragraph: in one person

The sport’s sudden, sweaty reversals—its flips, pins, escapes, and submissions—are all metaphorically made for a novel that evangelizes in favor of people’s potential versatility.

The support to keep wrestling also has broadened to include the involvement of women, a fairly recent Olympic wrestling addition, and Olympic swimming icon Mark Spitz.

They all are a bit happier and more optimistic today, although guardedly so.

As American Greco-Roman Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner told the Des Moines Register:

“This was the board that basically gave us the death penalty, so to speak. So the same people that voted us out had to vote us back in. . . . I’d say 60 we’re in, 40 we’re out now. But we’re building so much momentum.”

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