When I first saw the headlines this week, I thought there must have been a typo. Sadly, I was wrong: the International Olympic Committee had decided to drop wrestling from the Olympics, starting in 2020. A sport that has been a staple of the Olympics since about 708 B.C.
My first reaction was disbelief. Then confusion and sadness. And finally anger. The Olympics without wrestling just doesn’t make sense.
I know that most people think of wrestling as a distraction, a minor sport at best. That is, if they’re not confusing real wrestling with “professional” wrestling. The “entertainment” that consists of face painting and chair throwing.
Real wrestling, the kind that takes place in high school and college fieldhouses all across the country, is a whole different animal. Real wrestling is as graceful as ballet, as complex as chess, and as captivating as anything that Shakespeare ever wrote.
I never wrestled, but I spent four years watching my son on the mat in high school. For my boy, wrestling taught him lessons that were more valuable than anything he learned in the classroom. Cliché’s like, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ Truths like, ‘you get out what you put in.’ As my friend Carlos is fond of saying, there’s a lot of wisdom on the mat.
Most teens don’t want to stand out, most teens are happy to slide by unnoticed. And yet to wrestle means to step onto the stage alone beneath the glare of the spotlight. It takes incredible courage to do the thing that makes you vulnerable, and to do it in front of a room full of people. It takes guts, and no one can save you. And you survive. Sometimes you survive by not getting pinned, sometimes you survive by just showing up. And you do it over and over, again and again.
For my son, and for many of his teammates, surviving taught them an important lesson: that he could rely on himself to get through his tough moments. Wrestling didn’t make those tough moments disappear. It just made them bearable.
I’ve talked to dozens of wrestlers, all of whom have told me that wrestling was, quite simply, the peak experience of their lives. For some, wrestling kept them out of jail. For others, it was the only thing between them and dropping out of high school.
I know that the only constant in life is change. Still, the idea of holding an Olympics without wrestling is hard to imagine. But unless the IOC reverses itself, that’s exactly what will happen in 2020. And for this I am sad.
In the meantime, I will distract myself by watching the first round of the state wrestling post-season tournament at Newton South High School this Saturday. It will be strange to show up and know that my son won’t be wrestling (he graduated last spring). For the first time in ages, I will have no skin in the game.
It doesn’t matter. Whether wrestling remains in the Olympics or not, it will always have a special place in my heart. Still, I’d give anything for one more Saturday of sitting by the side of the mat and rooting for my son.
I hope the IOC has the courage to admit that they made a mistake and welcome wrestling back into the fold. That would take guts. Wrestler-like guts. Hopefully, they are up for the challenge.
Jonathan Simmons is the author of Here For The Ride. His book, Bloodtime: A Father, A Son, A Year On The Mat, will be published next fall.