The texts, calls and emails poured in to Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith on Tuesday, all from people wondering the same thing he was. How could wrestling really be in jeopardy as an Olympic sport?
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
It made no sense to Smith, who has coached two wrestlers who became Olympians, Jason Gleasman at Syracuse and Ben Askren at Mizzou. The International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday it would drop wrestling — one of the most Olympic sports there is — starting with the 2020 Summer Games.
“When I saw the news today, I literally got about 25 texts and emails and phone calls,” Smith said. “It’s not small news.”
Barring an unlikely reversal, Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling will be contested for the final time in the Olympics at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. A 15-member executive board voted by secret ballot to exclude wrestling, and the IOC did not explain the decision in detail.
Smith grasped at the chance wrestling may survive after 2016. Wrestling and seven other sports — baseball and softball as a combined entry, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu — will compete for one spot to be included as a new sport in 2020. The executive board will meet in May and the final vote will be in September.
“Your first reaction is you’re really disappointed,” Smith said.
Smith said he heard rumblings the IOC might drop wrestling, but he didn’t believe it because of its status as one of the Olympics’ most ancient sports.
“I know they’ve been adding different sports and they didn’t want it to get too bad so they’d cut some out,” Smith said of the IOC. “But you kind of take it for granted … wrestling has been in the Olympics forever. Why would they cut out one of their originals? It would be like cutting out track and field. It’s been there since the beginning.”
Smith, who has been to the last two Olympics, said he’s seen firsthand how much other countries love wrestling.
“I can’t imagine what’s going on in Russia and countries like that right now,” Smith said. “They love wrestling over there. That’s their sport, their wrestlers are like NFL guys. They’re that popular.”
U.S. wrestlers have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, including Rulon Gardner’s upset of Russian Alexander Karelin in 2000 for the gold medal.
“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, and that was basically amateur sports,” Gardner told The Associated Press by phone from Logan, Utah. “To get the death penalty out of nowhere.”
Smith expects the IOC decision to be a widely discussed topic this week in Columbia, where the Missouri state wrestling tournament and NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals will both take place.
“The wrestling community will be here together, so it’s going to be talked about a lot,” Smith said.
While Smith doesn’t know what he can do yet, as one of the leaders of the sport in the state of Missouri, he’s hopeful those who love the sport — from coaches to wrestlers to parents, etc. — will do all they can to save it on the Olympic level.
“I don’t think we’re going to let this be a final decision,” Smith said. “A lot of people think it’s over, but not a lot of people in the wrestling community. I saw a Facebook page that just started up called Save Olympic Wrestling and 20 minutes ago it already had 28,000 people. … the IOC can make a decision like that, but it’s not going to be kept quiet.”
The New York Times news service and The Associated Press contributed to this report. To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.