When curious people ask Jim Husk about his red, blue and yellow rubber bracelet, he stops to preach the gospel about his favorite sport.
Wrestling, which Husk has been coaching since 1965, is the oldest sport in the Olympics. Greek myth, Sumerian wall carvings and the Bible depict wrestling stories. But after a surprising takedown, it is at risk of being wiped off the Olympic mat.
The International Olympic Committee will vote Sunday on whether to keep wrestling on the program or whether it is too ancient and too dull for the Games of the 21st century.
The decision on wrestling’s future has emerged as the most provocative one of three at the IOC’s meeting in Buenos Aires. Members also chose Tokyo over Istanbul, Turkey, and Madrid to be the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and were expected to vote Tuesday on a new president to replace Jacques Rogge, who is retiring.
Husk, who won seven state titles at Miami Southridge High and now coaches at Columbus, is anxious to hear the outcome. He has supported a six-month worldwide campaign to save Olympic wrestling — which is what his bracelet says.
“I’m optimistic, but it is scary to think of the Olympics without wrestling,” he said. “It would be shameful. History doesn’t seem to count much these days.”
Since the IOC executive committee voted in February to discontinue wrestling as one of the 25 core sports, loyalists have fought back. The international federation, FILA, made leadership reforms and altered competition rules to reduce colorless clinching and increase dynamic action in matches.
The Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW) enlisted the support of celebrities such as Billy Baldwin and CEOs who attributed their boardroom success to lessons learned while grappling in a singlet. International meets were held. Social-media chats spread the word about how wrestling has evolved since the Olympics of 708 B.C. to London 2012, where 71 countries competed and 29 won medals in Greco-Roman, freestyle and women’s freestyle.
FILA’s new president, Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, called wrestling’s response to IOC rejection “shock therapy” for a sport that needed to change.
“Just because we’re an old sport doesn’t mean we have to be old-fashioned,” USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said from Buenos Aires, where the presentation team was making its final run-through. “Wrestling is unique in that you can walk into an arena and visualize what it was like in ancient Greece. But we’ve also seized this opportunity to modernize our sport and make it more spectator-friendly.”
New rules encourage aggression and scoring. Most cumulative points now wins a match rather than best-two-out-of-three periods. Penalties for stalling are more costly. A 30-second “shot clock” puts pressure on a wrestler who hasn’t scored in a two-minute span. Two points are awarded for an offensive takedown.
“I was at junior world championships and the action goes really fast,” USA Wrestling spokesman Gary Abbott said. “We will have a better product at world championships in Budapest [Hungary] in two weeks than we had in London a year ago.”
Wyoming’s Rulon Gardner edged Russia’s Alexsandr Karelin for the Greco-Roman superheavyweight gold at the 2000 Games in a memorable upset. Karelin, nicknamed “The Experiment” and undefeated for 13 years, was famous for his reverse body lift slam, but Gardner managed to neutralize him in a 1-0 victory that was subtly gripping rather than obviously spectacular.
“We have to make wrestling more understandable for people who are used to watching pro wrestling, MMA, UFC,” Gardner said. “Olympic wrestling is an art. In my battle, the chiseled Russian lost to the non-chiseled American who grew up on a dairy farm. Each match is the ultimate one-on-one story inside a circle.”
The lobbying of Gardner, Karelin, Dan Gable, John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner, Jordan Burroughs and stars from Eastern Europe and Central Asia has put wrestling ahead of squash and baseball/softball in the race for the last spot on the Olympic menu. Karate, wushu, wake-boarding, roller sports and sport climbing did not make the IOC cut. Modern pentathlon was expected to be eliminated but survived, again. Golf and seven-on-seven rugby have been added to the 2016 program.
Wrestling, with 177 federations, argues it has more worldwide appeal than squash, perceived as an elite sport. Baseball and softball are trying to get back into the Olympics, pushing opportunities for female athletes and a six-day baseball tournament proposal that could bring major leaguers to the Games. But neither sport is popular in Europe and baseball’s performance-enhancing drug problem has damaged its image.
Husk, 71, has seen wrestling’s popularity in the United States decline in part because of the dissolution of collegiate teams. Those who stick with it will find themselves hooked, he said.
“The strategy, strength, technique, throws, head locks — it’s like nothing else,” Husk said. “The Olympics is our time to showcase wrestling. They’re adding excitement, and the sport will be better for it.”