Skip to main content

Don't drop wrestling from Olympics

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
U.S. wrestler Jacob Stephen Varner, right, celebrates victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev at the 2012 London Games.
U.S. wrestler Jacob Stephen Varner, right, celebrates victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev at the 2012 London Games.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: Committee proposes dropping wrestling from 2020 Summer Games
  • He says wrestlers have had lives raised up and have exalted their nations at the Olympics
  • He says wrestling goes back to the very first games in 708 B.C.
  • Downey: Young wrestlers will lose important goal; Olympic committee should reconsider

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist.

(CNN) -- Been thinking about wrestlers.

No, not about Hulk Hogan or Andre the Giant or The Rock. I mean real wrestlers. Wrestlers who wrestle for real.

Wrestlers who won't wrestle in the 2020 Olympic Games if the International Olympic Committee drop kicks their sport. It was revealed Tuesday that the IOC is giving serious thought to the elimination of wrestling from Olympic competition.

Been thinking about Steve Fraser.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

He was a deputy sheriff from Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I watched him in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on the night he became the first American ever to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. It was shiny. It was gold.

"Knowing me," he said, "I'll probably have it bronzed."

Been thinking about Joe Williams.

Wrestling may be cut from Olympic Games

He was a high school and college wrestling champion from Harvey, Illinois, who was 29 when he finally made it to an Olympic Games. He went to Athens in 2004. He dedicated it to his older brother Steve, a former wrestler who died of heart failure right outside Joe's house in 2003. Joe did his best but did not win a medal.

"I don't care. It was still worth it," he told me. "Every long, hard minute from Day 1."

Been thinking about Clarissa Chun.

She -- yes, she -- is a wrestler. A mere 4 feet, 11 inches tall. (Women's wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004.) Chun was a kindergarten teacher from Honolulu, the daughter of a Japanese-American mom and a Chinese-American dad. She defeated a seven-time national champion in the U.S. trials in 2008. Then she went to the 2012 London Olympics and got herself a bronze medal.

Also been thinking a little bigger. Been thinking about Rulon Gardner, of course.

He bulked up to 475 pounds before NBC's "The Biggest Loser" invited him to be a contestant. But before that, he stunned the 11-time world champion, Aleksandr Karelin, to become the super-sized Cinderella of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I was in Indianapolis on the 2004 day when ol' Rulon qualified for the Olympics once more ... after a motorcycle crash, after dislocating a wrist in a pick-up basketball game and after a snowmobile misadventure led to a case of frostbite and the loss of a toe.

Why keep wrestling?

"To be able to represent us in the greatest sport in the world ... the oldest sport in the world?" Rulon replied. "To get to do that? Wow."

Wow, for sure.

That was my reaction Tuesday and the reaction from wrestlers everywhere -- a "nightmare," the former collegiate king of the mat, Dan Gable, described it in one interview -- at the IOC's proposal (not yet a done deal) that certain sports are to be abandoned by 2020, with wrestling among those on the hit list.

Somewhere among the gods, Hercules weeps.

You might not know your Greco from your Roman, but it was 708 B.C. when wrestling was a part of the first Olympics, historians tell us. And it was 1896 when the so-called "Modern Olympics" were born ... and, yes, wrestling was there in Athens that summer as well.

It is hand-to-hand combat in its essence. A fight with civility.

It is global activity. Afghanistan and Austria have competed in Olympic wrestling, as have Belgium and Bolivia, and Cambodia and Cameroon, and Macedonia and Mongolia, and so many more.

U.S. wrestler could see gold in London

Do you have any idea how many Olympic wrestling medals have been won by athletes from Finland and Sweden? Take a guess. Six? 10? Try 167.

Bulgaria has won 68 Olympic medals in this sport. Bulgarians don't wait around much to see how their athletes do in Olympic figure-skating or tennis or synchronized swimming. But in wrestling, Bulgarians kick butt.

The Olympic Games aren't just for sports superpowers, not just for Russia and China and the USA, USA! Egypt has won golds in Olympic wrestling. I'll bet an Egyptian today would say, hey, if you want to drop something, drop badminton, drop beach volleyball. Leave wrestling be.

As for these United States of America, well, you can prattle on about Michael Phelps or Bruce Jenner or Muhammad Ali or any other famed Olympian we have produced, but keep in mind this: Our wrestlers have won 50 golds. And 125 medals in all.

That mat meant every bit as much to them as that pool did to Ryan Lochte, as that gym apparatus did to Gabby Douglas, as that hardwood floor did to Kobe Bryant. Wrestlers are human, man. If you pin them, do they not bleed?

I am thinking of scholastic wrestlers all over the globe who starve themselves to make weight, devote countless hours to training for a match, learn every hold and every escape. Most don't dream of selling out Madison Square Garden some day. They do often fantasize about ducking their heads to have a necklace with a medallion draped around their necks.

High school wrestling has been the stuff of literature and cinema, from "The World According to Garp" to "Win Win." It has been a part of many a young man's formative years. It has now become part of a 21st century young woman's world as well.

Without it, we don't have young Jeff Blatnick of Niskayuna, New York, growing up to beat cancer and beat his opponent in the 1984 super-heavyweight gold-medal match, quite a feat for a kid who had his spleen and appendix taken out.

We don't have Steve Fraser, a night earlier, caressing his gold medal with one hand, his pregnant wife with the other, and inviting a reporter (me), "Hey, come on over to the hotel. We'll be partying all night!"

Because there won't be any Olympic wrestlers any more. Not if the IOC goes through with this preposterous proposition.

Can't we talk these people out of it? Grant them some 2020 hindsight? I do think we can convince them, and I'm pretty sure that I know how. Twist their arms.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT