Wrestlers in Northern Virginia are fighting for more than takedowns and kick-outs these days. Local youth wrestlers and coaches have joined thousands of like-minded grapplers all over the world in expressing their dismay at the recent decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which voted in February to remove the sport from the Olympics, starting with the 2020 Games. A recent visit from Congressman Jim Moran (D-Dist. 8), however, showed some of the area’s best high school wrestlers that they’re not alone in the swelling movement to get their sport back on its feet.
Moran, the Democratic representative of Virginia’s 8th District, spent last Thursday afternoon at Hayfield Secondary School visiting the Gunston Wrestling Club, a group of 50-60 student wrestlers whose high schools include Hayfield, Edison, West Springfield, Annandale, Robert E. Lee, West Potomac, T.C. Williams and Mount Vernon. In addition to watching them practice, Moran held an informal discussion with the athletes about efforts to overturn the IOC’s proposal to oust their sport.
Moran said he found it ironic that the IOC would decide to eliminate a sport as steeped in history as wrestling, which was introduced to the ancient Olympic Games in 708 B.C.
“It’s about 2700 years old, so I think it has proven its durability and its appeal,” said Moran, whose son wrestled in high school and college. “I just wanted to see the number of young folks that are involved in it… They take it very seriously; they’re in great shape; it’s a terrific sport. I know that it’s demanding and it’s fun and it requires great athleticism. So I don’t want them to eliminate it. We have legislation in the House and Senate - I’m a co-sponsor of it - that would strongly urge the International Olympic Committee not to drop wrestling from one of the sports that would be included.”
Although it will be included in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, wrestling will be dropped from the Olympics thereafter, thanks to February’s secret ballot vote by the executive board of the IOC. The Committee reviewed the 26 sports on its summer program with the intention of cutting one and adding a replacement later this year. In the end the decision came down to wrestling and modern pentathlon, a sport that combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting. Wrestling was chosen based on a 39-criteria analysis that weighed ticket sales, TV ratings, anti-doping policy and global participation, among other factors.
The IOC’s decision has drawn the ire of wrestling officials all over the world, many of whom have pointed out that neither wrestling nor the U.S. Olympic Committee are represented on the 15-member board. Moreover, the global participation factor would seem to favor wrestling, a sport that featured medalists from 29 countries in last summer’s Games.
If upheld this fall, the decision would deal a crushing blow to the sport in the United States, where wrestling has surged at the youth level in recent years even while it has experienced setbacks at universities. High school participation in the U.S. has increased by 40,000 wrestlers in the last decade. Some worry that the elimination of the Olympic avenue could give university officials on tight budgets more reason to continue their trend of cutting wrestling at the Division One level, a discouraging development for a sport without a legitimate professional league.
Athletes at the Gunston Wrestling Club remain distraught at their sport’s uncertain future, but they were given some hope by Moran’s visit last week.
“Sometimes when things are hard, we have nothing else but wrestling, nothing else but your team, nothing else but these tournaments, and you learn to love it,” said Kaleab Fetahi, a junior at Hayfield. “So knowing that my future dream of being an Olympic champion has now possibly been canceled, it’s just heartbreaking. Having someone care enough to step forward even though they don’t wrestle, it means a lot.”
Roy Hill, the head coach of Gunston Wrestling and Hayfield’s varsity squad, believes the decision to take away one of the Olympics’ original sports in favor of something that will garner more television dollars is a sad indictment of an organization that has strayed from its founding principles of amateurism and civic duty. He hopes it won’t negatively affect participation numbers for a sport that has helped many kids stay out of trouble over the years.
“I’ve been coaching 24 years, and I can’t even begin to count how many kids whose lives have been turned around by wrestling,” Hill said. “They come from dysfunctional, broken homes or they’re under-motivated in school or have substance issues or whatever, and then they get into this and it turns them around. I’ve coached football and baseball for several years at the high school level, but nothing really touches kids quite like this sport.”
The IOC’s decision isn’t yet final, as wrestling can appeal its status at the executive board meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia on May 29. A final vote will be cast in September, when seven other sports will be vying for the single opening in the 2020 Games. Among those competitors will be baseball and softball, the last sports removed from the Olympics in 2005.
Given that competition and the freshness of its removal, wrestling’s reinstatement seems unlikely anytime soon. Yet its advocates don’t plan on backing down in the coming months.
“I think that’s probably up to us and the extent of the feedback that they get,” Moran said. “I think it’s going to be important for people to write to the U.S. And International Olympic Committee because they’re going to look at not only the number of letters but the intensity of feelings about keeping wrestling. So if it has broad popular support, then I think it’s far more likely to retain than if nobody cares and they shrug their shoulders.”