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Wrestling down, but former stars insist fight isn't over

Former gold medalist Rulon Gardner retired after the 2004 Olympics.
Former gold medalist Rulon Gardner retired after the 2004 Olympics.
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The sport of wrestling has produced a bevy of well-known emotional moments in the Olympics over the past three decades.

In 2000, Rulon Gardner, who never placed higher than fourth in the NCAA tournament, faced the overwhelming odds of battling the most dominant Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time, Alexander "The Experiment" Karelin. Karelin, then 32, was as strong a gold medal favorite as there was in Sydney, Australia. Karelin hadn’t given up a point in six years, had won gold medals in the three previous Olympics, nine world championships in non-Olympic years, and hadn’t lost a match of any kind since he was 18 years old. He was considered as close to a sure bet for a gold medal as almost any athlete in Australia.

When Gardner took a 1-0 overtime decision, it was considered by many as the single greatest upset in Olympic history in any sport.

Four years earlier, Kurt Angle, in Atlanta, overcame a broken neck suffered at the Olympic trials to win a freestyle wrestling gold medal.

In 1984, Jeff Blatnick, in Anaheim, Calif., who had battled cancer less than two years earlier, also captured a gold medal as a heavyweight in Greco-Roman wrestling.

But now, wrestlers face a new battle. And this one dwarfs the others in importance. The most significant fight for not just U.S. wrestling, but the sport all over the world, is the one for both securing its future and having its Olympic history and legacy survive.

It’s a battle that came with almost no advanced warning. A week ago, almost nobody in wrestling was even aware the sport was on the verge of its worst news in more than a century, nor that there is most likely going to be no more Olympic moments, nor even Olympic wrestling in a few years.

The news came Tuesday that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was dropping the sport of wrestling after the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The final whistle hasn’t blown on the sport, but it is clearly so far behind in points that nothing but a pin in the final period will save it.

When the IOC meets between Sept. 7-10 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, wrestling will be pitted in a battle against baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art Wushu. The battle will be for the 28th and final slot in the 2020 games, and its ultimate survival as an Olympic sport. What makes the odds against wrestling even stronger is the same Olympic committee that voted the sport out isn’t likely to vote a sport back in months later.

But where people in the sport hold out hope is that the same type of politics that have nearly doomed the sport, can work in reverse.

On Tuesday, the IOC Executive Board had a secret ballot, voting to drop one sport because golf and rugby were scheduled to be added.

Wrestling, modern pentathlon and field hockey ended up as the final three under consideration to be dropped. They were in jeopardy based on a study that weighed a number of factors. Among the things to be considered were worldwide participation, history, popularity, television ratings and ticket sales.

By most accounts, FILA, the international governing body of wrestling, did no late politicking, figuring the sport’s history, being a fixture of the modern Olympics since its inception in 1896, and in previous Olympics dating back before 700 B.C., made it unfathomable it would be dropped.

"From what I read, a couple of the other sports on the chopping block had sent lobbying groups that were at the meeting," said Ben Askren, Bellator’s welterweight champion, who was on the U.S. 2008 Olympic team and remains with close ties to the sport. "Wrestling didn’t have anyone there."

After a series of votes, it came down to wrestling and the modern pentathlon.

There were 71 countries that sent wrestlers to London in 2012. That number was limited because wrestlers have to qualify in international competition for their countries to be able to send people in the various weight classes. FILA has 180 member nations. Only 26 countries sent representatives to the modern pentathlon.

On a worldwide basis, an average of 23 million people watched Olympic wrestling on television, peaking at 58.5 million. Those are not strong figures, and were part of the reason the sport was in jeopardy. However, the pentathlon had an average of 12.5 million viewers, and peaked at 33.5 million. But it had the lobbying efforts behind it of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the longtime IOC President, who pushed its own history in the games, dating back to 1912.

Politics and geography worked against wrestling. The IOC’s Executive Board members that voted came from 15 countries. At the last Olympics, there were 29 different countries that medaled. But the only countries in both groups were Spain, Sweden and the Ukraine. Field hockey, the third sport under consideration to be dumped down to the final rounds of voting, had representatives from 15 countries, but had recent medalists from Germany, Spain, Australia and the U.K., a list that better matches the home countries of the chief board members.

Traditional wrestling powerhouse countries like Russia, Japan, Iran and the U.S. had no voters. But it is expected those countries in particular will be working together, and all should have significant influence.

Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Games. Japan, which dominates women’s wrestling, has put in a bid for the 2020 games and is a finalist under consideration. If it gets the bid, it would be expected to lobby hard for wrestling to be brought back. Turkey, which only managed one bronze in 2012, but has a long standing history in the sport, is right now considered the favorite to get the games in 2020.

"The leadership in FILA kept everyone in the dark that it was a possibility," said Askren. "I had a lot of mixed emotions. I was in disbelief. I was upset about it. Then I got online and started reading a bunch of stuff about it. It’s not impossible for it to be brought back. I think it’s far from the end. I think it’s going to keep going."

"It hit me hard, but I expected it," said "King" Mo Lawal, who lost in overtime in the final match to determine the 185-pounder on the 2008 team. "FILA has done a terrible job with wrestling. The rules, the rule changes, they dropped the ball. I’d like to see a new governing body take its place."

"I just woke up (Tuesday) and I saw it, and I almost threw up," said UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, who was never an Olympic caliber wrestler, but did the sport from childhood and was a two-time NAIA All-American. "It’s not for sure yet, but it’s very, very sad they’re even considering it."

"I believe if we fight hard enough, the replacement sport for wrestling will be wrestling," said Angle, who due to his fame as a pro wrestler is, along with American wrestling icon Dan Gable, one of the two most famous gold medalists the country ever produced. "If Japan gets the bid (in 2020), they’re going to demand wrestling. They’re going to want wrestling. I just hope that doesn’t work against them . Will the IOC say, `We’re not going to pick you?’ I don’t know if that’s going to be part of determining it, but I hope Japan gets it."

Angle said he was in complete shock, but now thinks maybe he should have seen it coming.

"They took us from ten weight classes to eight, then to seven," he said. "They were telling us this whole time that eventually they were going to drop us."

The surprise was that the Olympics just added women’s wrestling in 2004, and the sport has a still-active superstar in Saori Yoshida of Japan, a 121-pounder who matched Karelin last year with her third gold medal to go along with nine other world championships. But unlike Karelin, who was known all over the world, Yoshida only had a following in her home country.

Because the sport is so entrenched in high schools and colleges, the loss of Olympic status doesn’t threaten the future of the sport in the U.S., but it will still have major repercussions.

High school wrestling participation has been on the rise in recent years, which some believe has to do with the visibility and popularity of mixed martial arts on television, and kids seeing how well wrestlers fare. College wrestling has taken a hit for decades, largely due to Title IX.

But when it comes to world level competition, after college, it’s Olympic money that supports the athletes, the facilities and the coaches that surround the national team. That would all end after 2016.

The world championships, held annually, would replace the Olympics as the sport’s highest competition. But the notoriety of a world championship pales as compared to an Olympic gold medal. It’s likely the number of top-tier wrestlers willing to make the sacrifices to compete for the U.S. on the world stage will drop significantly without the Olympics as the ultimate goal.

"I don’t know, I’ve never even considered that," Askren said regarding how his decision making after college would change if there were no Olympics. "I don’t know. If you take away MMA and there were no Olympics, I would have kept wrestling. But without the Olympics today, I would have just went straight to MMA."

"I had such tunnel vision that I still would have tried for the world championships even if there were no Olympics," said Angle. "But I don’t know that all the top wrestlers were the same as me. I knew I wanted to be a state champion in high school, a national champion in college, to win a world championships which I did in 1995, and then win the Olympics."

"With me, I would have never gotten into wrestling if it wasn’t an Olympic sport," said Lawal. "I remembered the Olympics as a kid, from the McDonald’s commercials, Slurpee cups, the Olympic rings, the Olympic torch. I knew this was a big deal.

"I wanted to be an Olympic champion and I knew wrestling was in the Olympics. At the time, I had no idea there was college wrestling or that you could get a scholarship to wrestle. But my goal was to be an Olympic champion. I had the opportunity in wrestling. I came up short, but I gave it 100 percent. And if wrestling wasn’t in the Olympics, I would have went into boxing."

But he also expects wrestling to be brought back.

"It’s all about money," he said. "It’ll take a lot of work from influential figures, and a better governing body. FILA has to get its act together and make the sport easier to follow."

Lawal in particular is against what many consider the somewhat fluke nature of how winners are chosen in overtime under international rules.

"They should do a sudden death overtime, you wrestle until a takedown is scored," he said. "Make it simple. The clinch makes overtime anticlimactic. A guy scrambling for a takedown makes it more compelling."

If Olympic wrestling goes away, one of the saddest aspects is that its history will largely fade away with it, from Gable to Karelin to Blatnick to Angle to Gardner, to Bruce Baumgartner, David Schultz and Kenny Monday, to earlier wrestling legends like Robin Reed, Dan Hodge and Henry Wittenberg.

"You just can’t forget the names," said Angle. "I hope to God this doesn’t happen, but those names will virtually be forgotten if there is no wrestling in the Olympics."

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