I woke up this morning to news on my Twitter feed that the International Olympic Committee had recommended that wrestling be taken off the Olympic program for the 2020 Olympics. I figured, at first, that this was a joke, a parody account gone wild or someone trying their hand at sarcasm.
Then I read another tweet, and another. I guess that's the thing about being stunned; the news that stuns you takes a minute to sink in as reality.
And so I've been waiting all day to write this. As many of you may know, I wrestled in high school and so have a soft spot for the sport that offers no excuses and the athletes that demand more physical and mental effort from themselves than anything they've ever done or will ever do.
Of course, Bakersfield loves wrestling, too. This is the home of the CIF State Championships, of one of California's three remaining Division I collegiate wrestling programs and of Jake Varner, the Bakersfield High grad who won the gold medal in the 96-kilogram freestyle event in the London Olympics last summer.
To a man, the locals I talked to today about wrestling were saddened and shocked. You can read about what they had to say in Wednesday's paper, but here, let me join the chorus.
I don't think it's hyperbole to say that wrestling made me a man. When my ninth-grade P.E. teacher convinced me to come out for the team, I was a 100-pound weakling who had never really asked anything of himself. Four years later, when I stepped off the mat for the last time, I hadn't won much of anything but had gained some muscle and more confidence and discipline than I thought possible. I learned never to back down from anything, particularly hard work.
That's one way of looking at today's news, and no, taking wrestling out of the Olympics won't diminish the sport's impact on kids like me and thousands of other youth and high school wrestlers around the country. But it still makes me sad.
The other way to look at it is from the wide-angle lens. The IOC wants to cut... wrestling? Really? When the modern Olympics began in 1896, the first two sports included were running and wrestling. Makes sense, right? When you think of athletic contests, you think of races and you think of one man (or woman, in more modern times) vs. the other in the ring, battling for physical supremacy. Wrestling makes sense.
Wrestling is also one Olympic sport that actually has maintained some semblance of amateurism as the decades have rolled by; as a consequence, the best wrestlers in the world circle the Olympics as the time at which they must peak. The Olympics love to be the main event, and for wrestling, the Olympics were the Super Bowl. Wrestling also gave many different parts of the world hope for success. In London, 29 different countries won wrestling medals, among the highest total of any sport.
Personally, I would have cut almost all of the 25 other Summer Olympic sports before I could stomach a cut to wrestling, but of course I'm biased. Still, I feel like there are at least 10 sports that the average sports fan would concede should go well before wrestling, one of the Olympic hallmarks.
1. Badminton (Grandma's backyard? Sure. The Olympics? Not doing it for me)
2. Equestrian (seems cruel to the horses ... and the viewers)
3. Field hockey (I just... no)
4. Judo (almost the same thing as wrestling but slower and more boring)
5. Modern pentathlon (this was one of the other sports on the chopping block. It's based on 19th-century calvary disciplines ... how do we still have this?)
6. Sailing (though it did give us this fabulous video)
7. Soccer (this is what the World Cup is for)
8. Sychronized swimming (no comment necessary)
9. Table tennis (Grandma's basement? Yes. The Olympics? Not necessary)
10. Tennis (this is what the Grand Slams are for)
Nothing against these other sports — I actually like most of them. And you can feel free to disagree with individual cases, of course. But I think most of us can agree that wrestling is a better fit for the Olympics than most of these others.
Really, IOC? You cut wrestling? The sport will survive, and it will fight, and it might even get back into the Games in 2020 or in Olympiads beyond. But this morning's news is just now beginning to sink in, and I still don't want to believe it.