Wrestling’s history alone warrants its inclusion in The Olympics, but Kevin Duffy argues that’s not the real tragedy of the IOC’s decision.
Last month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it would be dropping the sport of wrestling from the Olympics. Needless to say, the decision was not well-received. From the two former Olympic gold-medalist wrestlers who announced that they would be returning their medals, to the op-ed page of the New York Times, to essentially every sports page and media outlet one could find (including The Good Men Project), it was clear that the discontent was widespread.
The myriad articles and statements protesting the IOC’s decision have tended to use one of two broad frames. The first can be labeled the “wrestling community” argument, and it generally goes something like this: there is no professional wrestling (real wrestling, at least). For millions of wrestlers, from youth leagues to colleges to international competitions worldwide, the Olympics are the highest level of competition in the sport, the event that provides the ultimate prize in a supremely difficult and prestigious athletic endeavor. The place of wrestling in the Olympics lends the sport its legitimacy and its participants their aspirations.
Now, that’s certainly a great argument. Having wrestled competitively for a decade, I have a deep appreciation for the sport: it helped get me into college, gave me purpose and discipline, and in many ways is responsible for the person I am today. And certainly, anyone who has competed in a sport that does not have a major professional league can understand the importance of Olympic competition in that sport.
The second common frame can be labeled “the history of the Olympics” argument. Its essential outlines are such: are you kidding me? Walking is an Olympic sport now, and they’re going to drop wrestling? Wrestling was being contested at the Olympics in the eighth century B.C.E.; it is an essential part of the Games, among its oldest and most traditional events.
This, of course, is also an extremely strong argument, and should resonate with anyone who has any sense of history whatsoever. The Olympic organizers go to great lengths to tell us (most especially in their television broadcasts) how different the Games are, how, with laurel wreaths and elaborate ceremonies and triumphant music, they are a better, purer sort of athletic event, steeped in history and tradition. For the Olympics to present themselves so forcefully in this light and then drop one of the original sports seems hypocritical, a betrayal of the very historical value that the Games are meant to embody.
Both of these common frames of argument are legitimate and appealing. But they also both miss out on the opportunity to have a conversation about a much deeper, more fundamental issue that is at stake, which is this: wrestling is mankind’s first sport, its indispensable sport. For any civilization that has existed, the most culturally significant sport in its history has been wrestling.
One of the Hindu god Krishna’s first acts as a grown man was to defeat his chief rival’s best men in wrestling matches. The Prophet Mohammed wrestled the most feared wrestler of Mecca, and through victory won his conversion. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled the Angel, and for his perseverance was given the name Israel. In the New Testament, St. Paul exhorted the Ephesians to wrestle against the powers and principalities and darkness of this world. Zeus became the ruler of gods and men by defeating his father in a wrestling match. Gilgamesh established the dominion of mankind over nature in a wrestling match. Hercules wrestled Death himself at the threshold of hell.
Now, one may think, that’s all well and good, but there are a lot of old sports—sports that have also been important across the long arc of human history. Running seems an obvious candidate for this conversation. Surely, man must have been running since the very beginning. In a certain way, that is true. Running was even the very first Olympic event.
But we need to look back farther than that, for man was wrestling before he could even stand upright, let alone run. And we carry that heritage, however unconsciously, with us today. It is hard-wired into our DNA, all these millions of years of evolution later. For at our best, the way we think about and approach our lives has wrestling as its basic frame of reference. Because we don’t run from our problems, we don’t run from our challenges, we don’t run from our difficulties; we wrestle with them. God willing, we triumph. But win or lose, once we have wrestled, we can make our peace, like shaking our opponent’s hand at the end of a match. Our elemental ideas about struggle and effort, about confronting that which tries us, are encoded in our worldview, both biologically and culturally, in terms of wrestling.
So, does the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics constitute an abandonment of the wrestling community? Yes. Does it constitute a betrayal of the history of the Olympic Games themselves? Certainly. But even more essentially, it constitutes the severance of the Olympic Games from the very root where sport meets human development. It constitutes the severance of the Olympic Games from the most important thing that sport can do for us: to serve as the ultimate testament to humanity’s shared history.
The IOC should—inevitably will—now be forced to defend its decision to a worldwide community whose inheritance is to confront what is wrong—to resist, to wrestle. The IOC’s votes have been cast, but it is certain that this issue is far from settled.
Editor’s note: This weekend The Good Men Project will explore what FILA, wrestling’s governing body, must do to get the sport reinstated.
Photo: AP/Paul Sancya