The Olympics needs Wrestling

Zachary Adams

In February, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove wrestling from the Olympic Games from 2020 onward as part of an effort to reevaluate the Olympic lineup. This major blow to one of the oldest known sports has met significant resistance from the general public. Wrestlers at the UT are already facing similar difficulties — UT does not maintain an official wrestling team, and the athletes here have had to form the informal Longhorn Wrestling Club in order to compete. Both the IOC and the UT athletics department need to be reminded that athletics is about a lot more than money. It’s about preserving the spirit of competition and wrestling, a proud and ancient tradition.

Part of the problem, some believe, is that the wrestling community hasn’t lobbied on their own behalf the way other sports have. Numerous reports have suggested that another sport that was on the fence, the modern pentathlon — which combines pistol shooting, fencing, freestyle swimming, running and horseback riding — was chosen over wrestling because of aggressive lobbying and connections within the IOC. One of the IOC board members, for example, is an executive with the Modern Pentathlon Federation.

No Texas university has an NCAA Division I wrestling program. Longhorn Wrestling Club Coach Bob Moore pointed out that “[the state of] Texas has more high school wrestlers, both boys and girls, than any other state other than California.” I asked him why this significant community of high school wrestlers wasn’t matched on the college level. In other words, why doesn’t UT-Austin, which seems to have everything, not have an NCAA wrestling team? Moore told me, “There’s a lot of pressure there, and there always has been. If Texas were to get a team, all the other state universities would follow along, and maybe, because the Big 12 only has four wrestling teams left, they’ll decide to start wrestling at Texas.”

The mission statement of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, a confederation of unofficial wrestling teams including the Longhorn Wrestling Club, reads in part, “If and when a school does have room for athletic expansion, it is our hope that the wrestling program …  will be a first choice for ultimate inclusion in the school’s athletic curriculum.” Coach Moore went on to tell me that he didn’t quite understand why they hadn’t started NCAA wrestling at UT, assuming that Title IX restrictions, which mandate that equal funding be provided for both male and female versions of the sport, were a factor. It seems the sport’s relatively low marketability and small following are its greatest obstacles, but one would think that the most profitable athletics department in the country should be able to find some extra room in their budget. The issue is ongoing, and it’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Among the wrestlers at UT, shock and disappointment over the IOC’s decision prevailed. Longhorn Wrestling Club’s Jordan Hildreth put it bluntly: “You can’t have The Olympics without wrestling.” Team captain and 235-pounder John Demis called it “our Super Bowl.” And for Kaitlin Paveglio, the 148-pounder for the women’s team, the loss was even more jarring. “I thought it was really cool that they finally got girl’s wrestling into the Olympics [starting in 2000], and now they’re taking it away,” she said. These strong emotions have quickly translated into a global “Save Olympic Wrestling” campaign. Coach Moore said, “There are so many petitions you don’t even know which ones to sign,” and they all seemed to express the same hope — that the decision wouldn’t stand up to the strong backlash.

However, if those efforts fall short and the decision stands, it’ll be sad to see the end of the sport with the longest and proudest Olympic tradition. According to Professor Thomas Palaima of the UT classics department, wrestling is the best documented sport from ancient history, appearing in relief carvings and tomb markings all the way back to 3000 BCE — as well as famous Greek literature like the epic poems of Homer. The professor explained, “It was central to the ancient Olympics, and ancient Greece had truly legendary wrestlers,” many of whose names are still known thousands of years later. Apparently, the IOC and UT athletics didn’t get the memo.

Adams is a government freshman from Aiea, Hawaii.