MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Kurt Angle, Roddy White among athletes decrying decision to drop Olympic wrestling
Wrestling is the King of Sports and the Sport of Kings.
It’s also the oldest sport in the world and the second oldest profession.
While that last line might elicit a laugh, what the International Olympic Committee did last week was far from funny.
In its infinite wisdom, the IOC shockingly dropped one of the earliest and purest sports from the 2020 Summer Games.
The unexpected move was made via secret ballot during a meeting Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, where officials were discussing ways to streamline the Olympics.
The executive board, after reportedly reviewing comprehensive criteria that included TV ratings and fan interest, recommended that wrestling not be on the list of 25 core sports proposed for the 2020 Games.
The ill-advised and sharply criticized decision was nothing short of a travesty.
With the possible exception of track and field, wrestling is considered to be the oldest competitive sport. It made its first appearance at the ancient Olympic Games in 708 B.C. in Greece and has been a part of every modern Olympics since they began in 1896.
It’s hard to imagine a sport that embodies the Olympic ideal more than wrestling.
The decision sent ripples throughout the tight-knit wrestling community — and beyond.
Pro wrestling star Kurt Angle, who won a gold medal for the United States in the 1996 Summer Games, was among the most stunned.
“I never thought in a million years they would drop a traditional sport like wrestling,” Angle said. “Especially with the other sports that were being considered, and especially how competitive wrestling is worldwide.”
Among those other sports was modern pentathlon — a five-event sport that includes fencing, horse riding and shooting.
Modern pentathlon had competitors from 26 countries in the London Olympics. Wrestling brought athletes from 71 countries to those Games.
Yet wrestling is dead, and pentathlon is alive?
Angle wondered how much politics played a role.
“The former IOC president’s son was a pentathlete, and his son is on the committee,” said Angle. “Badminton was also on the board, and I’m really surprised that they chose badminton over wrestling.”
Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president, is vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union and a member of the IOC board.
Neither the sport of wrestling nor the U.S. Olympic Committee is represented on the 15-member executive panel.
Eight sports, including rock climbing, roller blading, wake boarding, squash and wushu (Chinese martial arts, for those like myself, who had no idea) are on the list of possibilities for the one sport that will be added in September. Recreational sports such as badminton, ping pong and handball remain.
None of these sports, of course, has the history of wrestling.
The U.S., which won two gold medals in the 2012 Games in London, is the most successful active nation in wrestling with 50 all-time gold medals and 125 overall.
Angle, noting that the U.S. has enjoyed its highest participation in wrestling since 1980, called the move “a slap in the face to Americans.”
Also expressing shock and outrage over the decision was Atlanta Falcons record-setting receiver Roddy White, a two-time state wrestling champ at James Island High.
With its highly competitive nature and broad global appeal, wrestling seems like the perfect Olympic sport, says White.
“Wrestling’s been around since the Olympics. Before they started introducing all these other sports, there was wrestling. To eliminate the oldest sport in the world is crazy.”
The decision of the judges, though, is not final. They will meet again in May to discuss which events should be included in the 2020. They’ll finalize the events in September.
White is hoping for a reversal and says it’s a cause worth fighting for.
“I’m definitely going to get involved, and I’ll try to get everybody on board. I need to get everybody’s attention to where we can make a difference.”
Dashed Olympic dreams
Angle, 44, said the decision affects him personally.
By age 26, Angle had achieved something only four people have ever managed to do. He won the Junior World Championship, NCAA Championship, World Championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Winning the gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympic Games was what he had worked for his entire life.
Making the feat even more remarkable was the fact that Angle, with two fractured cervical vertebrae, did it with a broken neck.
“Nobody can ever take my gold medal away from me,” he says.
But Angle, currently one of the top stars in the pro ranks for TNA Impact Wrestling, is concerned about the effect that the decision could have on future generations of aspiring Olympic hopefuls.
“You think about the history, and what people are going to think 20 and 30 years from now. They’re going to hear Kurt Angle was a gold medalist — but at what?”
Seventeen years have passed since Angle’s Olympic glory and the dramatic image of the wrestler weeping after winning the gold.
“I think about all the wrestlers I looked at when I was growing up. I dreamed of going to the Olympics and winning a gold medal. I’m worried about all the youth today ... all these wrestlers who are joining programs and dreaming of winning a gold medal. Those dreams could be shattered by a decision where other sports that people really don’t even care about are being picked over wrestling. It’s crazy.”
High school participation is on the rise. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school wrestling had 280,384 participants in 2011-12, up from 265, 215 in 2007-08.
White also noted the mass appeal of the sport. Taking it away, he says, denies many aspiring athletes the chance to chase a dream.
“All these kids have a dream of one day making it to the Olympics and winning a gold medal. Even when I wrestled, that’s what I thought about. I wanted to be an Olympic wrestler. I wanted to win a gold medal. These kids coming up today might not have that chance. Their dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal will be shattered.”
Last year White took 10 wrestlers from his high school alma mater to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs as a guest of USA Wrestling. The trip was to link the benefits of wrestling to football.
“When you get to be around those guys and see what they do every day and how hard they go, it’s impressive. They’ve been training the last three years just to get to this point.”
White began wrestling in high school at only 112 pounds before maxing out at 189 as a senior. His NFL playing weight is 212.
“I wrestled before I played football. I thought I was going to be a wrestler who won state championships and eventually would make it to the next level. I had seen so many people in my family go out and win state titles. This is like a family tradition. This is what we do.”
The Pro Bowl receiver says his football training pales in comparison to his time on the mat.
“I tell people to this day that football training is not even close to how hard I had to train to get ready for wrestling matches. Just to get ready for a six- or seven-minute match is grueling. Training camp — getting yourself ready and prepared for the whole season — is the hardest thing we do in football. You go to wrestling practice for two weeks, and it makes football look like a breeze.”
Amateur wrestlers starve themselves to make weight, spend countless training for a match, and learn every hold and every escape.
“That’s the thing about wrestling. It’s one-on-one competition. You have to get yourself mentally and physically prepared for those 30 or 40 matches I had to wrestle in high school and in tournaments. We were running for days.”
White says wrestling also is a great sport for discipline and it breeds toughness — two elements necessary in the NFL.
“I love wrestling,’’ he says unabashedly.
And that includes the professional ranks.
White, nicknamed “Roddy” Roddy by ESPN’s Chris Berman in reference to pro wrestling great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, enjoys all aspects of the genre.
“I used to have a blast at all the (pro) shows,” said White. “It’s very entertaining. And you have to be in great shape to do what they do.”
“That’s what a lot of people don’t understand ... just how grueling that sport is,” he adds. “You have to prepare yourself for that grind and get yourself in shape to do all that stuff.”
Shock and confusion
A growing number of fellow Olympians and pros have joined Angle in his opposition to last week’s decision.
Olympic hero Rulan Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic champion Alexander Karelin for Greco-Roman gold in the 2000 Sydney Games, then later lost a toe to frostbite after his snowmobile fell into an icy river, leaving him stranded for 18 hours, said he was saddened by the decision.
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on,” said Gardner.
Cael Sanderson, 2004 Olympic champion and now the head coach at Penn State University, called the decision a “tragedy.”
“It’s the greatest event,” Sanderson told USA Today. “It’s the most prestigious and premier. It’s the very top of the pyramid. It’s the Super Bowl. It’s only once every four years.”
Dan Gable, the legendary wrestler and coach, added: “It’s obviously one of my worst nightmares … Hopefully, it’s a major wake-up call that we can work through.”
A number of pro wrestling stars also took to Twitter to speak up against the move to exclude the iconic sport.
“Wrestling has been part of the Olympic Games since the beginning. It’s a beautiful sport! But I guess shooting a gun or forcing a horse to jump over hedges is more of a sport than wrestling to the committee. This is not right,” posted WWE world champion Alberto Del Rio.
“The Olympic committee should hang their heads in shame. Wrestling is the original Olympic sport,” tweeted WWE’s William Regal.
“We encourage our own Impact Wrestling community, WWE and wrestling organizations worldwide as well as competitive amateur coaches and athletes to have a unified voice to make sure wrestling will be an Olympic sport in 2020,” said TNA president Dixie Carter.
“I’m so disgusted by it. I’m fired up,” former WWE champ Jack Swagger told Sports Illustrated.
“It’s no secret I wasn’t the most athletic kid on the playground, but I went into it head over heels even though I wasn’t good at it at first,” recalled Swagger, a two-time All-American at Oklahoma. “It teaches you so much about life and that’s what makes it the best sport. It teaches you discipline and dedication and how to work hard and how to sacrifice for your goals. Those are things you can apply to any area of your life, whether it’s your education or your career. Honestly, it turned me into a man.”
‘Not over yet’
The decision, says Angle, could have an even bigger effect in other countries.
“I know we’re not the only country upset about it. There are a lot of countries that depend on wrestling. Look at the Eastern European countries. They only have two or three sports, and one of them is wrestling. They’re very good at it. Russia is a world power and has five million people in wrestling. I can only imagine how they feel right now.”
The Olympic Games aren’t just for sports superpowers.
Russia currently dominates the sport, but wrestlers from Japan, Turkey, Finland, Iran, Cuba and South Korea all won their country dozens of medals.
Like many of his peers, Angle has pledged to fight for a reversal. The move still needs to be voted on twice in order to become official. The final vote will take place at the IOC session, or general meeting, in September.
Hopefully, he says, the wave of criticism will continue to grow around the world.
“It’s not over yet. They’ve still got a meeting in September. We just have to show why they have to keep it.”
“I don’t think wrestling is that difficult to finance for the Olympics,” said White. “I’ve never seen any of these sports they want to add ... they don’t even display them during the Olympics.”
Wrestling, for the most part, also has avoided scandal, unlike other Olympic sports.
“It is pure,” said Angle. “Very seldom do you ever hear about a wrestler in any kind of drug situation. Amateur wrestling has kept it pure. It’s crazy that it happened this way. You hear a lot of stories about athletes who didn’t pass the drug tests in the Olympics. They beat it, or they got caught. You hardly ever hear about a wrestler ... it’s just not in wrestling. It’s a pure sport.”
Despite the chatter about mixed martial arts creeping into future Olympic consideration, Angle doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.
“I believe that the popularity of wrestling has something to do with MMA. But I think MMA is a little too graphic for the Olympics. If it does happen, it’s not going to happen in our lifetime.
You think about the IOC and protecting the athletes. Putting MMA in it would be pretty graphic with all its head trauma.
“I just don’t want wrestling to turn into a sport like sambo or jiu-jitsu where it’s just a club sport. Obviously that won’t happen in the United States because we have a strong program. We have our own style of wrestling. But I’m looking at other countries. What are they going to do now?”
Angle believes the wrestling community may not have taken it seriously enough prior to last week’s decision. He fears the Olympic Games may be watered down because of increasing commercialism.
“I believe we didn’t fight hard enough. We didn’t think it was going to happen. I think we thought they were putting us in there with five or six other sports, but it’s not going to happen because wrestling is too pure and too competitive. And then the IOC — a bunch of dingbats — got together and, for some odd reason, wanted to take the oldest sport in the world away. It’s like taking the hundred-meter dash away from track and field. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
A loud and aggressive response is expected from the international wrestling community.
In a statement issued in the wake of the decision, USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said, “We look forward to telling the story about wrestling to the International Committee leadership and the entire world … and why it should be part of the Olympic movement forever.”
“I just never thought that this sport, with its history and what it’s done for so many people, would have been dropped,” says White. “You can go down a list of things that you can get rid of. This is one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen.”
Angle is counting on a large contingent of supporters willing to do anything in their power to make sure their beloved sport continues its long and storied tradition in the Olympic games.
“I’m hoping to God we get it turned around and it’ll be history and we don’t have to worry about it,” he says. “But it’s going to take a lot of fighting up until September to get it done.”
Angle said he will personally carry the torch to make sure wrestling remains a strong and viable sport in the Olympics.
“I’m going to keep fighting too. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to get people to get behind it and make these people realize that you can’t take wrestling away from this world. There’s just no way. It’s too old, too pure and too traditional. That’s what the Olympics are all about.”