In a somewhat surprising decision the Olympic Committee has now decided to exclude both Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from the Olympic Games, while still retaining other considerably less traditional sports and opening up for adding a more modern sport.
To us Historical European martial artists, this should be quite upsetting, as Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are one of the few remaining historical European martial sports still being practiced in Europe, outside of some rare and regional folk wrestling, boxing and sports fencing.
Greco-Roman wrestling has been a part of the modern Olympic Games right from its start in 1896 and it has been included in every Summer Olympics since the very beginning.
This special variant of European wrestling was originally defined by a Napolean soldier named Jean Exbrayat in the early 1800s, but likely has roots dating back much further than this.
Exbrayat’s “flat-hand” or “French” wrestling quickly became quite popular all over Europe in the early 1800s. In the middle of the 1800s Basilio Bartoletti coined the term ‘Greco-Roman wrestling‘ to tie it together with older values and traditions and this is the term we most commonly use today.
Early Greco-Roman wrestling, however, was considerably more brutal than what we see today, more resembling a “proper” martial art. Body slamming, choking, and head-butting was allowed. And it is not until the end of the nineteenth century that we see gouging with the nails, punching, and violently slamming the arms together around the opponent’s stomach being forbidden.
Greco-Roman matches were also notorious for the length of the bouts. Many professional matches lasted for two or three hours or more. A notorious fight between William Muldoon and Clarence Whistler at the Terrace Garden Theater in New York lasted for a whopping eight hours and in the 1912 Olympics, a match between Anders Ahlgren of Sweden and Ivar Boehling of Finland lasted for an insane nine hours.
Freestyle wrestling on the other hand, has its origin in the Catch-as-catch-can wrestling developed in Britain in 1870, by Mr. J.G. Chambers, a form of wrestling later refined and made popular by carnival people who developed it with submission holds and other “hooks”. The travelling carnival people regularly challenged the often tough and eager-to-win locals for money and therefore faced many styles of folk wrestling. Through this they learned to incorporate the many, many traditional and regional techniques which they faced.
This evolved into several different styles which included new techniques and sometimes even borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Iranian wrestling traditions. Quite early it also spread and became quite popular in the USA and as early as in the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 it was included, with all 40 freestyle wrestlers being American.
The last few years have seen some serious debacles surrounding various rule sets and this, alongside of an increasingly loss of interest in practicing the sport appears to have lead to the sad decision of the Olympic Committee. However, as we all know, very important values are at stake here and instead of taking this action, more support for the sport is desperately needed.
Of course, this has already caused quite a bit of concern around the world, as many are upset with this decision, not least the practitioners themselves. In the words of Olympic Wrestler and Gold Medallist Jordan Burroughs:
Today is a sad day for the sport of wrestling not just in the US, but worldwide. The sport we’ve grown to love, that has battle tested our wills and hardened our ears has been removed from the Olympics starting in 2020. The host city is still unknown, but one thing we do know is that at this point, wrestling won’t be there.
As an Olympic Gold Medalists I feel an obligation to fight for the sport that I love most. I wouldn’t be who I am if I allowed this to end without a fight. We have to rally. It may be out of our reach, but trying never hurt. We have to protect the sport that I’ve done since the age of 5, the sport that molded me into a man, and turned a 45 pound toddler, into a 163 pound champion.
The outcry on all social media networks is evident. #SaveOlympicWrestling trended on Twitter today, and I’ve received many messages demanding I do something. I have. I guess my performance in London wasn’t enough. I suppose the months I spent inspiring kids to chase their dreams after my victory fell on deaf ears. Deaf IOC ears at least. At the end of the day I just keep thinking, “why wrestling?”
The Olympics are going in a different direction they’ve stated. I feel a bit helpless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of the IOC. Not to belittle the significance of any other event, but wrestling is an original. We were here first. 26 out of 27 Olympics to be exact. Wrestling is thriving at the midget level, in a sport that was said to be dying. After all the college program cuts, we showed signs of life in our success and support on every level. Then; Boom. Gone.
I first heard the news in a German airport today during a layover. Olympic Wrestling is gone for now, and Rio is it’s curtain call. I’m hoping and praying for the best. I will do my share in protecting not only my dream, but every little wrestlers dream worldwide. Still, if wrestling is axed, it will be tough to look kids in the eye for the rest of my life and tell them that they can’t follow their dreams anymore, they’re no longer Olympic hopefuls. They’ve lost to an opponent that they’ve never had a shot against. One that’s never even worn a headgear. The IOC. Heartbroken.
So, let’s do what we can, at least sign one of the many petitions. Show your support!