The recent galling decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics has me steamed, but it has me musing about the virtues of the hand-to-hand contest, too. Wrestling and the Olympics go way back—back to the beginning, in fact. The amphora pictured here depicts a wrestling match between Peleus, the Greek hero and father to Achilles, and Atalanta, the only woman to have signed on as crew with the Argonauts (whose famous quest for the Golden Fleece you may have heard about). It is easy to think of wrestling as the preeminent man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat sport, but in this old story, girl beats boy.
The win made Atalanta big news in an era when women were not even permitted to witness athletic contests. As an infant, Atalanta—perhaps a goddess—a princess in any case, had been left to die on a freezing hillside by a vengeful family who wanted a boy child instead. Saved and suckled by a she-bear (not a bad upbringing for a future athlete), Atalanta gained fame in a storied boar hunt, after which her father rediscovered her, and then hoped to profitably marry her off. Atalanta agreed to be married, but only to a man who could beat her in a footrace. And since no man in all of Greece proved fleeter of foot, it took subterfuge and a few golden apples to charm her to the altar. We can hardly blame Atalanta for the chip on her shoulder.
Female wrestlers first appeared in world championship freestyle competitions in 1987 and in the Olympics in 2004. By 2008, 41 nations sent competitors to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. And there you have a remarkable turnaround within what had seemed fixed gender boundaries.
Now, we hear that wrestling finds itself in deep trouble as officials warn the sport will not be included in the contests of 2020 to be held in either Istanbul, Madrid, or Tokyo. Most of the trouble stems from continuing doping scandals, falling ticket sales, and problematic televisability. But it seems as if the lack of a full fledged female auxiliary figured in Olympic officials’ deliberations as well, punishing well-intentioned efforts so far.
The Greeks didn’t invent the holds and throws, locks and heaves, rolls and clinches, and takedowns that characterize wrestling—indeed wrestling seems the oldest, most widespread, most intuitive, and most fundamental unorganized rough and tumble test of strength, reflexes, agility, endurance, and cleverness. The classical Greeks did officially make wrestling—sometimes in the form of the fierce, no-holds-barred pankration—a prominent part of their competitions from the first games held in 776 BCE in Olympia in Southern Greece.
To pare down the list of Olympic Sports to their magic number 25, the gentlemen of the international Olympic Committee are also turning thumbs down on the Chinese martial art wushu, sport climbing, both baseball and softball (likely too Asian and too American for these European aristocrats), roller sports (too déclassé?), and squash, karate, and wake boarding for this reason and that. But, because of its antiquity and provenance at the Olympics, it is the decision, by secret ballot, to rub out wrestling from the list of core sports that is attracting the most criticism.
I’ll join the chorus. Theirs is a horrendous, ill-considered decision.
Now granted, perhaps the Olympic trampoline events have the advantage of more amplitude and dressage more cross-species appeal, beach volleyball more intriguing camera angles, BMX more street cred with sub-teens, and the “modern pentathalon” the benefit of laser-tag pistols. And badminton, well, I’ve written nice things about badminton before, but I can’t come up with a good reason it should be regarded as an Olympic sport. None of these events listed above have the provenance of wrestling and the links to the ancient contests.
As a former wrestler, I can also say with confidence that none of the others come even close to matching the grit it takes to wrestle. As a not much better than average wrestler once upon a time, I took some pleasure evading getting pinned by an opponent four notches above my weight class. Arranged by a not altogether friendly coach, the match seemed like six minutes of attempted murder. Basically, to wrestle is to find your courage. This reason alone gives the IOC reason to reconsider.