What is this I hear? Word’s afoot that the IOC (International Olympic Committte) is all set to plant a patent leather boot on wrestling’s proud and broad backside. Just isn’t fair if you ask me. Just as we got so good at field hockey that our dribbling had left both audiences and competition with eyeballs going giddier than pin balls, they changed the game by waving in artificial surfaces. Then they waited long enough for Mary Kom to get a little long in the tooth and slow down a bit before introducing women’s boxing to the games.
For years India’s celebrated wrestlers would beat allcomers in dirt pit matches but without the resources to procure enough wrestling mats, wouldn’t be able to muster enough speed to match opponents on modern mats and lose both pride and points. And just when a new wave Indian pehelwans seem to be on the verge of global domination, the sport of wrestling is being shown the door at the highest sporting platform in the world – the Olympics. Just doesn’t seem fair.
And it isn’t just the land of the Great Gama, Gobar Goho and Sushil Kumar that is crying foul. Of Uzbekistan’s five golds at the Olympics, four were in wrestling. Of Azerbeijan’s six, four went to the big guys in singlets. Even a regional powerhouse like Iran owes 39 of its 60 medals at the games to her pehelwans. And grapplers won the most powerful Olympic nation in history, the United States of America, the highest number of medals in the games after athletics and aquatics.
The ancient Olympics, the games that inspired the modern sporting extravaganza, was basically about foot races, a chariot race, wrestling matches and boxing. The legendary Milo of Croton owes his legends to his Olympic victories in the wrestling pit. To take wrestling out of the Olympics is to take the soul out of the games. If the IOC replaces wrestling with Baseball or Taolu Wushu, they might as well stop calling the games the Olympics (after Olympia in Greece) and start calling it the Mount Rushmore games or the The Great Wall games.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for adding new disciplines to the games. New disciplines like sport climbing and karate would be great for both the spirit and the spectacle of the great games. But why drop wrestling, a sport that both in popular culture and ancient art pretty much represents the games? And it is a discipline whose highest honour, its greatest pinnacle, is an Olympic medal. Removing such a discipline from the games would take away the dreams of thousands of young wrestlers from Tehran and Iowa to Baku and Hissar, and turn away thousands more from taking to the mat. And what about the millions of amateur wrestling fans for whom catching Olympic wrestling matches on the tube is highlight of their Olympic experience?
Instead, if the IOC really wants to shock the world and drop a sport that would get noticed, instead of something obscure and little known like Modern Pentathalon, it should perhaps drop soccer from the list.
To begin with, Olympic soccer, with its rather queer format and restrictions, is not even a pale shadow of the real thing. The quality of skills and stars on display wouldn’t match club football, regional tournaments or the World Cup. With its huge infrastructure requirements, soccer almost needs a parallel venue and set up. And last but not the least, Olympic soccer is a very poor reflection of the real world. If we are talking football and you come across rankings where Canada ranks way ahead of Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands, know that we are either at the Olympics or you’ve got that list upside-down.
The Olympic committee says it dropped wrestling from the proposed list for the 2020 games based on ‘apparent popularity’, television ratings, policy against doping and globalised spread of the sport, amongst other things. Th at, just between you and me, is just plain ridiculous and a whole bunch of words I am not supposed to write. The IOC obviously needs to become a little more transparent and democratic about its means and methods.
The wrestling world, fans, federations and athletes, will react as it best can. But this should also serve as a wakeup call for the sport. Wrestling, given its past and potential could do far more to popularise the sport. It has relied too long on its various derivatives to stay relevant for a large section of people. Pro-wrestling for fans from around the world, folk wrestling for traditionalists and collegiate wrestling for career athletes keeps the heat off amateur wrestling federations and the need to modernize or innovate.
How much cooler would the sport become if they would ditch those singlets which haven’t changed since KD Jadhav stepped out of one and design something which Reebok or Adidas wouldn’t be embarrassed about having their name emblazoned across. And organising tournaments around the world where top seeded wrestlers go up against each other for points and trophies much like in pro-tennis with its ATP points and Grand Slams would really be very exciting. Additionally, this would allow fans to associate with and recognise not just the country but the individual wrestler, his style and method and his personality. Every sport needs spectator interest, champions and characters to grow and flourish, find fans and become commercially viable, for associations, athletes and sponsors.
Is there more that can be done for wrestling? Of course! The world celebrated the glories of Muhammad Ali, Don Brad man, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Fedor Emelianenko and Pele for standing atop their chosen sport with near invincibility for so long. And yet it hasn’t heard of Aleksandr Karlein, a giant on the mat who dominated Greco-Roman wrestling for a decade and a half.
The wrestling body has been guilty of unimaginative handling and perhaps not doing enough to add a modern dimension to the sport. The Olympic omission should jerk the powers that be into thinking on their feet and taking steps to make the sport more appealing for a global audience and carving personalities out of those anonymous chiseled men in tights. And while we are at it, could we please make the rules, like for the tie-break for instance, a little more dynamic and viewer friendly?
The Olympics without wrestling is a bit like a wedding without a bride. It works for some, but it just isn’t what it’s always been; beautiful still for those involved but not what most of us want it to be, and in some respects, what it is meant to be.
So 2020 or not, wrestling will have to, eventually, return to the Olympic fold. Meanwhile, those in whose hands the sport’s future lies should get busy with carving an identity for the sport that is self reliant, like tennis, football, basketball and athletics. After all, for most serious athletes, what happens once in four years can be the cherry atop the cake, not the entire cake. The Olympics are an event, not a career. The wrestling body owes it to the sport, the wrestlers, the fans and history to make the sport what it can be, what it was always meant to be and now that they have been ‘suplexed’ onto their broad behinds, it is time for them to get back up and push against the clock or to go down in history as the men (and women) who let wrestling go down, and out…