The International Olympic Committee executive board recently recommended wrestling be cut from the 2020 Games during a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The announcement that a sport dating to ancient times and synonymous with the modern Olympics since 1896 was getting the axe sent shockwaves through the wrestling community (amateur and pro).
Among the most vocal of their displeasure was TNA Impact Wrestling star Kurt Angle, who took home Olympic gold for Team USA in heavyweight freestyle wrestling at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
“There were several sports on the table that were looked to be dropped,” he said. “I believe that there were a lot of representatives from different sports there fighting for their sport not to be dropped. I believe that the world governing body of wrestling took it for granted that there was no way in heck they were going to drop wrestling.
“I think they might have dropped the ball a little bit and didn’t show up to fight. I’ve heard that the former IOC president was a pentathlete and his son (Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.) is on the committee….I believe they were going for either badminton or wrestling, and they chose wrestling, which completely baffles me considering badminton is pretty much a recreation sport. Wrestling is the oldest sport in the world and very competitive worldwide, so I’m not sure how this happened. I don’t believe anyone in the wrestling community thought wrestling would get dropped.”
For Angle and many others in and out of the sport, the fight to keep wrestling alive in the Olympics has just started. Online petitions and campaigns have formed in growing numbers.
“As long as we continue to have the support we’ve had and it continues on, I believe we will get it back and that wrestling will be part of the Olympics,” Angle, 44, said. “I can’t imagine the Olympics without having wrestling in it, considering it’s the world’s oldest sport. There is so much history to it and so much tradition. When you think of the Olympics, you think of Greco-Roman wrestling; you think of track-and-field. You aren’t really thinking of badminton or trampoline or ballroom dancing or other sports.
“I’m not picking on them. I’m just saying they aren’t traditional. I don’t know what the reasoning was. I’m sure they considered wrestling as not a female watched sport. I know a lot of females that watch the Olympics, and that could have something to do with it. We started having female wrestling to get our female audience more involved and invested with female wrestling. So I don’t know how wrestling can get dropped. Wrestling to the Olympics is pretty much like what the 100-meter dash is to track-and-field. I don’t know how you have the Olympics without wrestling. I’m still baffled by it, but I’m going to fight it every bit of the way for it.”
This isn’t the first time a sports has been dropped by the IOC. In 2005, baseball and softball were removed from the Olympics, but wrestling has a global appeal.
Without wrestling in the Olympics, a number of countries may not be represented. The impact would be devastating internationally, as well as in the United States.
“There are countries that only have two or three sports,” Angle said. “They depend on Olympic wrestling and take pride in it. It means everything to them. When you win the gold medal, you are considered a folk hero or national hero. There are a lot of countries like that, especially in the Middle East and other countries.
“In America, we have such an amazing wrestling program. Wrestling is in its biggest popularity right now. So these kids with these dreams of winning a gold medal have been taken away from them. We have so many kids in wrestling right now…Here we are twiddling our thumbs on whether we can have an Olympic gold medalist again.
“Wrestling will survive, and wrestlers will go to the World Championships every year, but not having the Olympics is a big void. That’s going to affect whether kids decide to go on to compete in college or not.”
Respected wrestling official and South Florida resident Rick Tucci couldn’t agree more. The Pembroke Pines resident has officiated seven Olympic Games. I would have been eight, if Team USA hadn’t boycotted in Moscow in 1980. Sitting on many boards and representing the sport, his contributions have led to inductions in the Broward Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame, National Junior College Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Wrestling was in the original Olympic games back in the ancient days,” Tucci said. “It was from the modern Olympics in 1896, and it’s been in every Olympics. To take this sport and eliminate it, when there have been so many people over the years, where this is their one thing in their country that they’ve done and gotten a medal...There are some countries where the only teams they send to the Olympics are the wrestlers.
“If you saw the recent opening ceremonies, Mongolia participated in the Olympic games. That’s it and nothing else...So you are affecting a lot of countries whose claim to fame is wrestling. It’s a shock. It’s like somebody died. You try to think if there was any warning sign.
“The only warning sign, if you want to call it that, a lot of people were unhappy with some of the rules for Greco-Roman [wrestling]. But to eliminate women’s wrestling, which is probably one of the most advanced numbers of participants in the world today along with freestyle, it’s ridiculous.”
Much like Angle, Tucci looks at politics playing a factor in the IOC recommending wrestling over maybe Pentathlon, which was introduced by Pierre de Coubertin more than a century ago. It’s a hybrid of five sports featuring shooting, fencing, a 200-meter freestyle swim, show jumping and a 3,000-meter cross-country run.
“If you look at the governing body or IOC executive board, I’m not sure as I haven’t looked at it that close, but I know there are monarchs, some are kings and ruling members of their country.
“Their involvement in athletics, especially wrestling, is very limited. I don’t know if it was pushed by somebody. I don’t know if it was a personal thing. I hope it wasn’t, but I’ve done seven Olympics and have some younger guys who are coming into their own, and they are good for three or four Olympics. Some of these guys, when you try out for a sport and participate, you want to be the best.
“The goal for the athlete is to be in the Olympic Games and be a gold medalist. It’s to referee at the Olympic Games. If plans go through, they won’t have these dreams anymore. It will be like 1980 all over again where we are all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
Tucci, 68, has seen and heard the backlash from throughout the world. His phone has been ringing off the hook.
“Iran, Germany, Russia, Brazil and every country, the people are outraged,” he said. “There was one gentleman from Pakistan who drew the Olympic rings with sad frowns with tears coming down. I can’t really talk if politics were involved. If it’s like any other level, I would say politics was involved. The big talk was one of the sports that was probably going to be eliminated Pentathlon, but nobody suggested we would be affected. It turns out that the person in charge of the Pentathlon is the son of one Antonio Samaranch, who was the IOC president until he died. So politics or no politics, if you go on the popularity of the world, wrestling would be one of the top five in the world…”
Danny Hodge, Shelton Benjamin, Brock Lesnar, Jack Swagger and Dolph Ziggler are just a few names who have parlayed their success in the amateur ranks to a big career in pro wrestling. This is the reason it’s not surprising to see WWE and TNA helping to rally fans in support of keeping wrestling in the Olympics.
Swiss WWE superstar Antonio Cesaro has been following the news developments each day.
“I looked at all those sports, and I was actually amazed because all those sports I thought had a legit reason to be in the Olympics. They’re all Olympic sports,” Cesaro told the Miami Herald’s Jim Varsallone during a recent interview.
“Then the next day I heard wrestling was picked to be dropped, which just blew my mind, because wrestling is one of the original sports played in the Olympics and one of the few ones that are still left.”
Cesaro, 32, believes blaming viewership or attendance isn’t right.
“If you look at all the wrestling organizations all around the world and how many people they employ or at least occupy positions between the coaches, the teams and the wrestlers. That’s an incredible amount of people.
“The one event they look forward to is the Olympics. It’s the biggest thing in wrestling, and to take that away from them is wrong…[The news] did send huge waves all throughout the world because there are certain countries like in Eastern Europe or in the Middle East where wrestling has a completely different standard. It’s their national sport. Wrestling needs to stay in the Olympics.”
John Duff, who recently moved from Colorado Springs to Miami, has recently served as the CEO of the governing body of USA Weightlifting. A number of pro wrestlers hail from the weightlifting world including WWE’s Big E. Langston and Mark Henry, who appeared at the 1996 Olympics.
Duff said he was shocked by the wrestling announcement.
“Wrestling is an immensely popular sport around the world and in the U.S.,” he said. “The ’National Governing Body’ for the sport here in the U.S. has close to 200,000 individual members and is an official NCAA sport. I’m sure that politics played a major role, since the criteria for sport performance released by the IOC would actually have defined wrestling as winning the vote over all other ’considered for elimination’ sports.
“Example: Modern Pentathlon ’National Governing Body’ which has less than 1,000 members in the U.S. and only 20-plus countries competing in the last Olympics versus wrestling with 70-plus countries sending teams/athletes. The bright side is great publicity and awareness for the sport, which [wrestling] should be able to capitalize on and grow membership, participation and increase funding.”
Duff was CEO of USA Weightlifting from 2011-12. Along with fundraising, he oversaw membership, sponsorship, media, donations, merchandise sales and more. Duff says he ran the organization like any public company, except all national governing bodies are 501c3 corporations and follow certain IRS rules/regulations and public disclosure requirements.
Whether in his sport or wrestling, he believes a national governing body's ability to raise funding is critical due to the fact that there is no government support for amateur sports in the United States. Unlike America, many countries that compete in Olympic sports allocate funding for their athletes.
“It takes money to recruit, train, coach athletes and officials, host national championship events, select national teams and cover the travel expenses for the team to compete in world championship events, world cups and other international competitions every year,” he said. “Olympics are every four years, but our national teams compete every year around the world.”
WWE Hall of Famer Gerald Brisco, and his WWE Hall of Fame brother Jack, made the transition from accomplished amateur wrestlers to successful pro wrestlers.
Brisco, a talent scout for WWE, recruits from the amateur wrestling ranks for the company’s developmental program (WWE NXT) based in Tampa.
Brisco, 66, woke up early the morning the Olympic news broke and was inundated by emails from friends in the sport.
“As WWE talent scout, I have a tremendous amount of contact with the amateur world,” said Brisco, who starred in amateur wrestling for Oklahoma State University. “Bobby Douglas, who was one of the coaches who participated in the Olympics and a part of the Olympics developmental program out in Colorado Springs, he was the first to let me know. I started getting calls from just about all over the country.
“As we move forward, there was so much initial reaction not only here in the United States, but Canada and others. The Russians were really upset about it. Japan too…I think it’s going to have to be a global fight to get it reinstated. Everybody needs to join forces on this thing…I think it’s going to unite everyone…”
Brisco joins others in the belief that wrestling was hurt by lack of representation on the 15-person committee.
“We say that we had no idea that wrestling was going to be on the chopping block, but to me that isn’t true,” Brisco said. “Four years ago they were thinking of dropping some of the Greco-Roman wrestling. FILA (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) got involved, the global governing body of amateur wrestling…Greco-Roman, freestyle were a part of the original seven-sport, five sports in the age of the Olympics…So when they say core sports to me, wrestling is one of the core sports. In the Olympic anthem, the second verse of the anthem has wrestling throughout. To me, it’s mind-boggling that they would drop it.”
The veteran grappler echoes the sentiments that the IOC recommendation was political. He thinks it will take influential leaders, media attention and a united front to put pressure on the organization to reinstate wrestling on the 2020 Games schedule. When it comes to reasoning that wrestling is potentially getting the axe due to low TV ratings, Brisco responds, “How can the sport get an audience when it’s put on at 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning with other sports like rhythmic gymnastics being shown on prime-time?”
“I have nothing against any of the sports that are in there, but there are a lot of sports to me that are hobby sports,” Brisco said. “The rifle shooting and things like that are recreational. One of the sports that wrestling would be competing against is wakeboarding. My youngest son (Wes) was sixth in the world a few years ago. I don’t know how global that sport is, but it has grown a lot since he was participating in it. To me, that is a sport you just do on a lake on an afternoon. Wrestling has so much history and so much behind it. Amateur wrestling is probably getting more publicity now than it has ever in the history of the sport. That is good. The negative has turned into the positive and really given exposure to get the national backing that we are receiving.”
In his role in WWE, Brisco says he is currently working with one from Oregon State and another from Missouri who are “high on the Olympic ladder”. They each have dreams of winning gold, but have to consider their options for the future pending the IOC’s decision. Brisco doesn’t think it will really have much of an impact with this generation, but looks at the juniors and seniors in high school.
“These kids who have that goal and have that dream, it would affect them,” Brisco said. “I was just went to the Florida State Championship in Lakeland this past weekend. There was a kid who won their fifth Florida state title and their dream is going to the Olympics…This would be devastating for these kids in the high school championship, that’s who it is really going to affect.
“Wrestling is probably the fastest growing participating sport in the state of Florida, and it’s nationwide. I don’t think it will drop because universities have kind of gotten over the Title IX disaster when they were dropping wrestling because they didn’t have an equal amount of women participation. Now they’ve added the programs these last few years, where it’s kind of bottomed out where it’s equal. It’s growing on the collegiate level, and I don’t think it will stop. The ones I’m worrying about, though, are the high school kids. We’ll see whether [dropping wrestling from the Olympics] and filters out where they say, ‘Well, I’ll go learn gymnastics or to twirl a ribbon.’”
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