Olympic wrestling’s history goes all the way back to the original games in ancient Greece. But it will end at the 2016 games in Brazil. On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee moved to drop the sport, a decision that shocked Olympic observers and has drawn heavy criticism. Barring an unexpected shift in the I.O.C.’s position, a storied sport will lose its highest-profile event.
Olympic sports come and go. Baseball’s last medal ceremony was in 2008, but it’s doing fine because of its popular professional leagues. Less-visible sports like wrestling rely on the quadrennial Olympic boost to stay financially healthy. Wrestlers, coaches and fans of the sport are now gravely worried about its future.
This is the worst blow to wrestling, but not the only one. Many American colleges have cut their wrestling programs because of scarce budgets and Title IX requirements to equally support women’s athletics.
“Wrestling unfortunately has become an endangered sport in the last 20 years,” says Mike Finn, editor of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine.
To compete internationally, wrestlers need sponsors to pay for training and travel. That money will be harder to come by without the power of the Olympics’ global stage.
“If you do not have the Olympics and all you have is the world championships, a lot of those people that have helped support wrestling, those corporations, may not be there.” Finn adds. “That is the biggest concern.”
Wrestling is relatively healthy at the high school level. The National Federation of State High School Associations counts nearly 300,000 American wrestlers in its latest data. That makes it about as popular as swimming and diving. But those numbers could drop if there’s no hope of Olympic glory.
“Every kid who’s ever been an athlete always imagines himself playing in the big game,” says College of the Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson. “If you don’t see the great wrestlers standing on the podium, getting that gold medal draped over their necks, it’s hard to imagine yourself being the great star and the great athlete.”
And wrestling fans find it hard to imagine an Olympics without one of its original sports.