Wrestling was voted out of the Olympics. It was gone, in 2013, as room was needed for the new “X” sports that we’ve enjoyed in Tokyo–skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing. It was an ignominious end for a sport that crosses hundreds of cultures, practiced for thousands of years. Skateboarding only goes back to the Sixties.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, like Gable Steveson coming from three points down in the final seconds, like a wrestler who is pulled down but then flips her opponent for a pin, wrestling has come back. The whole world, where wrestling “originated” everywhere, all the time, is thrilled.
The Pankration, Pehlavi, Pehlwan, Pat Patterson
Many countries across the Balkans and Eastern Europe, from Russia to Mongolia, had traditions. The Ottoman Empire brought the pehlavi, oil wrestling, to every country they conquered. It’s still Turkey’s national sport, and in the old times, when you had to win with a pin, matches could last for days. The men wear special leather pants, which was more than the Greeks, who also wrestled in oil but naked.
What makes wrestling different from so many other Olympic sports is the breadth of countries competing. Often 60-70 different nations, from all corners of the world, send qualifiers. Compare that with the 6 which sent baseball teams or 16 beach volleyball countries. Watching wrestling, you quickly have to learn how to spell Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijani, names like Khongorzul Boldsaikhan and Elizbar Odikadze.
The phrases “greatest of all time” and “greatest in history” are getting bandied about with awful frequency these days. She’s the greatest swimmer of all time. That has to be the greatest finish in history. Really, folks, history is pretty long. It’s annoying to use such words when athletes are in their second or maybe third Games. Come back, maybe, when you hit five. Or how about eight?
Instead, as far as the Olympics go, I propose that we honor the Living Legends. The Games are full of folks who still compete with strength and experience. Every time they say, “just one more time.” Every time it’s, “this will be my last.” But they stay in shape, they have outstanding technique, and they’re long past the Olympic jitters.
Perhaps they have lost a step but still make up for it with guile and style. Perhaps they’re not three-peating or four-peating or five-peating. There still have suitcases full of medals. Overall, considering all the sports, these legends might make this the Greatest Class in Olympic history.
The Olympics have always been a gauntlet for athletes. The physical competition is hard enough. But they also have to contend with the expectations from their country, intrusive examination from the media, and the obnoxious assumptions made by–well, by us. It’s not new. It’s not right that humans are used as a brand for a country, or as symbols. I have a modest proposal toward that end. And, if you’re not keen on my idea, you might at least consider that there is some good arising from the “stress and strain of free competition.” Change does emerge from these battles. It takes time.
Same Old, Same Old
An awful lot of people have decided they know exactly what’s best for these talented individuals. Media feeds are replete with opinions about whether He Did or She Should or How it Proves one thing or another. The coin of the realm these days is to pick apart the decision of Simone Biles to remove herself from the team and individual all-around gymnastics competition. Most understand that part of her decision was that the tournament had grown far bigger than flying off a vault. Biles herself noted that she hadn’t quite realized what it would mean to be “the face of the Olympics.” Not the face of gymnastics, or even team USA. But NBC had been selling the entire Games with Biles’ giant photo superimposed over all its coverage.
Massive, over-hyped expectations aren’t new. Remember Matt Biondi? Biondi was an outstanding swimmer who competed in Seoul, in 1988, midway between seven-time-gold-medalist Mark Spitz and Crazy Arms Phelps. Biondi had a chance to equal Spitz’s record, as he was entered in seven races. Naturally, that was the story, and when he lost a close butterfly race to Anthony Nesty of Suriname, the story was the loss. Not his seven medals–five gold, a silver, and a bronze. Not his return to win three more in 1992. Just that somehow five wasn’t enough.