Olympic order was restored and common sense prevailed in the wrestling community.
There was, indeed, a rejoicing over being saved.
Will it last?
The wrestling community did what it promised it would when the International Olympic Committee announced last summer it was going to eliminate wrestling from competition. Several months later, the IOC took notice when it announced during the fall the Games’ oldest sport will continue for at least the next decade.
Among the sports in danger of permanent removal, wrestling won its way back with 49 votes from delegates of the IOC, compared with 24 for baseball/softball and 22 for squash. The vote guaranteed freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling would be contested at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the 2024 Olympics, which have yet to be awarded.
The ancient sport was put on the possible chopping block because leadership became complacent and the scoring can be hard to follow for those not familiar, making it hard to put on during “prime” hours of a broadcast.
The sport made some changes and the community worldwide did just about everything it could — petitions, emails, social media floods — to make sure the cause had a voice.
“As a high school coach I think it allows me to continue to sell the other styles to the kids in order to make them better well-rounded wrestlers,” Desert Vista coach David Gonzalez said at the time of the announcement in September. “For Arizona and USA wrestling we get to continue to sell the Olympic dream to young wrestlers but our goal, along with USA wrestling, is to work toward re-establishing wrestling as a core sport, not a provisional.”
Starting with the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, there will be six weight classes for men and women in freestyle (previously there were eight classes for men and four for women) and six in Greco-Roman for the men with a possibility of adding women’s Greco in future years.
The rules were also changed to make matches more dynamic. For instance, matches will consist of two three-minute rounds now instead of three two-minute rounds to help alleviate confusing final results. It used to be if a three-round decision’s scores were 1-0, 0-6, 1-0, the competitor who won twice (each 1-0 scores) won the decision despite ultimately being outscored 6-2.
The highest attainable is, well, still attainable, and as a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Corona del Sol wrestling coach Jim Martinez welcomes the changes. To him, they’re not merely a desperate reaction to the prospect of the sport being eliminated from future Olympics. He noted long-standing conflicts between the U.S.-preferred folkstyle wrestling and the International preference of Greco-Roman and freestyle competitions created difficulties in generating casual American interest in watching the sport. Sometimes rules were passed for financial or special-interest reasons beyond the sport’s interest.
“As a former Olympian it was taking away scoring and that is the only reason you become an athlete,” he said. “Like a baseball player hitting a home run to determine an outcome, that’s what they live for. Scoring is taken away, so what’s the incentive to take risks on the mat? We’re trying to get back to have that incentive and sometimes reward those for being aggressive and taking chances.”
Martinez noted friends who were also part of the 1984 Olympic team noted matches are lower-scoring in the past 12 years because of the previous rules and changes, whereas, say, 20 years ago, it used to be more competitive and exciting, not simply what Martinez called “50-50 coin flip” strategies or approaches during competition.
Theatrics have also increased. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City, competitor introductions took on a more UFC-style approach, and it also happened at the World Championship trials last fall.
“It’s seen a surge in enthusiasm and appreciation when it’s more of an event,” Martinez said. “They’re pulling out all stops to find the most important match be last and keep the crowd interested as long as we can. It’s all about helping our sport be appreciated by the fans and doing whatever it takes. It’ll make our sport more exciting.”
It adds up to a great day for the wrestling community after a wake-up call and plenty of hard work.
“Being an Olympic champion is considered the apex in the sport of wrestling,” Mesa assistant coach Dave DiDomenico said. “Wrestlers in Arizona who dream of emulating Henry Cejudo can still strive to do that.
“Other sports have their own venue — the Super Bowl, World Cup, World Series — but the Olympics are ours and now we can continue showcase how great of a sport it is.”
Locally, it will be incredibly hard to achieve what Cejudo did — a gold medal in 2008 — but at least the dream is still alive for Arizona wrestlers like Dalton Brady, Ted Rico, Alex Bambic, Robbie Mathers and many others.
Those high school studs, however, have always been in it for the sport, competition, and so many other reasons. Starting in Rio in 2016, the next big tests will be whether casual fans, once-every-few-years watchers of Olympic competition, and never-before-viewers tune into wrestling and then put down the remote.
“Wrestling is different than just about all other sports, but if you don’t have fans watching it’s going to die whether it’s the best product in the world,” Martinez said. “It’s striking a balance between getting the most of our athletes and training, and doing what it takes to be the best, and getting the fans to watch and understand what’s happening and why so they’ll hopefully enjoy the sport we love so much. USA Wrestling will see numbers of new athletes involved, and if they increase, we’ll be on the right track. I’m optimistic we’ve done the right things to go in the right direction.”
• Mark Heller of the East Valley Tribune contributed to this story. Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.