As it stands, February 12 will be a day that will, to borrow a phrase, live in infamy in the tightknit world of wrestling.
Wrestlers around the world were stunned to find that the International Olympic Committee had voted to remove the sport from its 25-event core program used in the Summer Games, effective 2020.
As it stood, one of the sports that was part of the initial 1896 Games would be fighting for its Olympic life following the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The decision resonated all the way to a converted warehouse set back off of Kenny Road just southwest of the Ohio State campus. The Steelwood Athletic Center is the training ground for the OSU wrestling program as well as the home of the Ohio Regional Training Center, a residency program for current and former OSU wrestlers and other graduates of the college ranks attempting to qualify for future Olympic Games.
“I think the whole wrestling community was a little bit devastated, like, ‘What? How could this be?’ ” Ohio RTC coach Lou Rosselli said.
“It was surreal,” said former OSU wrestler J.D. Bergman, still an elite international competitor. “The first reaction was disbelief.”
Those in the wrestling community weren’t the only ones stunned by the announcement. Newspapers and websites have been filled with commentary blasting the IOC’s decision and asking the ruling body to reconsider, though whether those pleas will fall on deaf ears remains to be seen.
That hasn’t stopped the sport’s proponents, including a pair of lawmakers from Ohio. United States Senator Sherrod Brown, a native of Mansfield and resident of Avon, has introduced a resolution in the Senate opposing the IOC’s decision, and in order to drum up support for the sport, he made an appearance at the Steelwood wrestling room last Monday.
“Unfortunately, the IOC made a decision that really puzzled a lot of us,” Brown said. “I think when most people think of the Olympics, they think of running and jumping and wrestling. There are obviously dozens of sports, many of them not nearly as well known, and few of them have the long tradition in the Olympics and the long tradition of human beings engaged in the sport of wrestling. That’s why we’re making this appeal to the IOC.”
Brown’s Senate resolution is mirrored by one in the House that Rep. Jim Jordan of Urbana, Ohio, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Wisconsin, has introduced.
“Our mission is to get the House to pass it, get the Senate to pass it, and send a loud message that this country, the United States of America, the government of the United States, the thousands of high school and college wrestlers in the U.S. and the people in this country want to see this continue as an Olympic sport,” Brown said.
Brown noted that there are more than 11,000 high school wrestlers in the state of Ohio and that 17 four-year universities in the state sponsor the sport. In addition, the Ohio RTC sent heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev to the 2012 Games in London.
Whether that and other public shows of support – such as former wrestler Jay Leno inviting Olympic medalists Rulon Gardner and Henry Cejudo on “The Tonight Show” recently – will end up having an impact remains to be seen.
What is for sure, though, is that there’s a united theme in the sport that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
The World Unites
A little more than a month ago, Bergman got to do something not many Americans get to do.
He got to shake the hand of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Considering Ahmadinejad helped put Iran on George W. Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” and that U.S. and Iranian relations haven’t been great since the famous 1979 hostage situation that led to Oscar winner “Argo,” it just goes to show how the sport of wrestling can build bridges.
“I was famous for being an American wrestler in Iran,” Bergman said. “They love wrestling so much. In other countries, it’s their main sport or their second sport behind soccer. It’s very important. This decision is affecting millions upon millions.”
It’s fair to say that the United States, though it has the most medals of any country in the sport, isn’t the only place behind the wrestling cause. Russia, Iran and much of Eastern Europe – all portions of the world where the sport is popular – have started to spearhead lobbying efforts to get the sport back in the IOC’s good graces.
Wrestling is also popular in many Asian countries, including India, where it has a profound social impact especially when it comes to gender rights. In all, 71 countries took part in wrestling at the 2012 Olympics.
And when those countries get together, the highest level is the Olympic Games. Dlagnev learned that when he competed in London this past summer.
“The Olympics just brings the world together,” Dlagnev said. “You hear that and you see that on TV, but when you’re there, you kind of experience it. Living with the other athletes in the village, there’s nothing like it. To experience it was an honor, and thus is just a heartbreaking thing to think that’s going to be an experience other wrestlers don’t get to experience.
“It was the most electrifying atmosphere. I’ve been to bigger arenas. The NCAAs has more people for the finals, but it’s electrifying. When you talk about nation vs. nation, something else comes out of a person. That’s your genealogy. That’s your past. That’s your people. There was definitely an electricity at the Games like I’ve never experienced.”
The hope is that the recent banding together of support will result in wrestling being returned to the Olympic program. Those who are part of the fight are slowly starting to believe things will turn the sport’s way.
“We weren’t in the first couple of weeks,” Bergman said. “The IOC never overturns decisions, but now I feel confident. I’m on a lot of committees with USA Wrestling, and with what Russia and Iran and Turkey and Azerbaijan and what the U.S. is doing … I feel a lot more confident now that it will stay.”
A Positive Sport
The IOC vote knocked wrestling out of the list of core sports in the Olympic Games, but it is one of seven sports that can be still voted into one slot remaining for the 2020 Games. It joins baseball and softball – which have a joint bid together after being dropped following the 2008 Olympics – as well as karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu.
So why should it stay over others? Wrestlers have a few answers, and most of those start with the lessons the sport teaches.
“I think where I would be without it,” said Dlagnev, who grew up in Texas but moved to Columbus to train at the Ohio RTC. “I know that God used wrestling to lead me to Him, so my faith and wrestling are tied very closely together. It’s the thing that drove me to go to college. I was a C student before I started wrestling, then I got straight A’s because I knew I wanted to stay in the sport. Now I’ve built so many relationships, networked so many people in so many avenues of life.
“Personally, it’s such a difficult sport. It reveals who you are and the things that you need to do to become better. As you grow as a wrestler, you grow as a person, there’s no doubt about it. All those things are why the sport is so important to me to fight for in the Olympics.”
Rosselli, himself a 1996 Olympian and a coach on the ’12 squad, sees the benefits of the sport for a younger generation.
“I think it really teaches young people discipline and how to shoot for a goal and work toward it,” the Ohio RTC coach said. “It helps build that character, because you’re not always winning. You learn how to win, how to lose and then how to handle things and strive for something. My kids are young now – they’re 13, 10 and 7 – and they’re involved in wrestling just so they can learn how to do some things.”
Bergman, meanwhile, looks at the historic aspect of a sport that has become synonymous with the Olympic movement.
“Before the Olympics, it was in the caves,” said Bergman, who competed at the 2012 Olympic trials after earning multiple All-America honors at OSU. “That’s what people did. It’s the purest sport. That’s what bears do. If you’re bigger and stronger, you win and get the guy down.”
Removing wrestling from the Olympics for good could have a negative impact on participation at the sport's roots, too. Brown warned in his speech last week that high school and college participation could be undercut or diminished if wrestling is not a part of the Olympics, something that Rosselli is afraid of as well.
“You have to be worried a little bit,” Rosselli said. “You don’t really know the trickledown. You don’t really know what spurs something that onsets another decision to another to another. There are 77 college wrestling programs in Division I, and will it have an impact if you don’t have Olympic athletes alongside your elite guys? It might.
“We all know that youth wrestling is incredibly huge right now. They’re not obviously Olympic athletes this moment, but don’t think for a second when people put their kids in wrestling, you’re looking at scholarship opportunities. It crosses parents’ minds eventually, so we’ll see.”
No matter what happens, Rosselli will keep training his athletes for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Whether the chance to make Games will still be around for the youngsters that will come through the OSU program in future seasons remains to be seen, but Rosselli is hopeful that there’s a positive ending to the story at the end.
“The way the world is coming together on it, it could be, knock on wood, a blessing in disguise,” Rosselli said. “People haven’t fought this hard for something in a long time in the sport of wrestling."