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.
A chunk of my childhood was in black and white. Or, to be more accurate, my recollection of the outside world as-it-was when I was young, my memory of historical events, is in black and white because television was in black and white, and that was the conduit to the outside world. The Vietnam War, the Brady Bunch, Richard Nixon, the funeral of Martin Luther King, and even cartoons. Saturday nights when I was a pre-teen belonged to black-and-white UHF stations, to Big Time Wrestling.
One of the stars from those days was Pat Patterson, whose obituary in the New York Timesthis week caught my eye. He was Canadian; he was gay; he was a legend. But all of the wrestlers loomed larger than life. It was the nature of their business to loom.
Big Time Wrestling
Wrestling, like so many forms of circuses in our world of bread and circuses, has evolved multiple times over the centuries. My grandparents probably saw it as a sideshow in a circus or attached to vaudeville acts before the invention of TV and mass media. It did not spring forth in whole cloth as it is today, in pay-per-view, with lasers flashing, tens of thousands of fans, and heavy metal music blaring. The version I saw was on that tiny (9-inch) TV screen on grainy channel 40 in a musty half-filled Sacramento auditorium. But it was essentially the same.