John Matthews knows all about having the Olympics taken away from him.
“It still sticks with me and probably always will,” Matthews said. “You work so hard for one singular moment and then it is gone.”
While wrestlers currently at the Olympic Training Center and youth wrestlers know something about having that goal crushed with the announcement that IOC recommended the sport be removed from the 2020 Olympic Games, Matthews’ pain cut deeper.
The Flint, Mich., native was an Olympian.
He qualified for the 1980 Olympics on the United States’ Greco-Roman squad only to have the country boycott the games.
“It always left this void in my competitive spirit,” he said. “I was going back for a second time and I knew I was better prepared mentally and physically. It was going to be my year, but I never got that chance.”
Matthews, a student counselor at Desert Vista, represented the country in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as the 163-pound Greco-Roman entrant. He didn't place in ’76 and, although he made the team, didn't get a chance to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (after being considered the favorite as the 1979 gold medalist at the Pan-Am Games) as the United States boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The missed opportunity is something he struggled with for a long time, left the sport completely after feeling he was unfairly named the alternate in 1984. He feels for the group coming through now and beyond if the world wide wrestling community is unsuccessful in returning their sport to the Olympic Games it has been represented in since the original event in 1896.
“I don’t understand the decision,” Matthews said. “They’re about to find out how strong the wrestling community is worldwide. This sport develops men by the way you sacrifice and take the mat on your own.
“Wrestling will remain strong at the lower levels. There are world championships every year not just the Olympics, but it is the one event everyone around the world recognizes as the ultimate goal. You are representing your country, wearing your nation’s colors in front of a huge audience. It’s the Mecca of wrestling.”
Matthews, who helps coach U.S. international teams with hopes of being an Olympic coach in the future, is worried what it means for the nation’s elite wrestlers.
With no Olympic payoff will they forgo all the unrelenting drilling and the daily fight to get better for hours on end for the prospect of making big money in the cage of mixed martial arts?
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Matthews said. “When I was coming up there were no other options. You wrestled in college and if there was shot at the Olympics you took it. Now, the MMA is a viable option for wrestlers.
“This will probably push more and more of our best competitors in that direction instead of the Olympics.”
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or Jskoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.