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.
So many wrestling traditions! The ancient Greeks fought in the benign pale style, which was full of pesky rules, like no biting or crotch-grabbing. Their pankration had no rules, except no eye-gouging. Arrichion of Phigalia won with a dramatic pin–even after judges found that his chokehold was a literal “death grip,” because his neck had been broken in the match. His family displayed the winner’s laurel wreath proudly at his funeral.
The Indians have pehlwan, a dirt wrestling style. The Russians perfected the upper-body style (Greco-Roman style) at the end of the 19th century. The Mongolians consider Bökh, wrestling where only feet can touch the ground, to be one of the key “manly skills” along with archery and horseback.
Of course, many in America are more familiar with “professional” wrestling, that ironically-named form of entertainment that is more show than sport. There’s a little history there, as I wrote before about Pat Patterson, the Sheik, and Moondog Mayne, who were the precursors to Hulk Hogan and the Rock.
Wrestling Is How We Prove Our Womanhood
Yet wrestling isn’t traditionally 100% male. Women’s wrestling has ancient traditions, too. Senegal has sported women’s matches since the 1400s. In this fascinating tale, 67-year-old Marie-Thérèse Sambou, describes how wrestling would “prove our womanhood,” and “a win for me was a win for the village.”
Brazilian women wrestled in the huka-huka style, while Indian women warriors also wrestled in the pehlwan. Atalanta, who beat her suitors in footraces until a clever one threw golden apples in front, also defeated the Greek “hero,” Peleus in a wrestling match.
Centuries later, the French and the Scandinavians formally organized women’s wrestling. The French established the first wrestling clubs for women, while the Swedes and Norwegians were the first to add women to international programs. Interestingly, the Scandinavian women wrestled in Greco-Roman style, even though the current notion is that women don’t have the upper body strength for it. Swedish women excelled at Greco-Roman wrestling.
The Americans Fall Out
In America, the progress of women wrestling has been less noble. Women did wrestle for entertainment, first in vaudeville, then in WOW and GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) formats. U.S. amateur wrestling women had a harder time of it. Jerry Hunter took her 1950 suit to the Oregon Supreme Court, which turned her down, saying that the state had a right to protect public safety and morals, and therefore she could be banned from wrestling.
Though the U.S. didn’t have great traditions of amateur wrestling, we do obsess over winning medals. America leads in the Freestyle Wrestling medal count (118), though the combined USSR/Russia team dominates in Greco-Roman (91) and is also second in freestyle (97). Still, big wrestling enclaves in the Midwest, in Iowa and Oklahoma, as well as at universities like Penn State and Ohio State carry strong traditions; “American tradition,” of course, means decades, not centuries.
Yet American freestyle wrestling had lost ground since the late 1980s, when the U.S. team had once been world champions. Many men’s college teams blamed Title IX. The odd dynamic was that as the Europeans were pushing women’s wrestling’s international legitimacy, the Americans were suppressing women’s wrestling and claiming women’s sports were ruining men’s wrestling as well.
Several men’s wrestling teams even sued, using Title IX as the basis. The argument was that as colleges were required to take the 99% of their budget allocated to men and give some funds to women, they were unfairly chopping men’s sports, specifically wrestling. The real problem was that colleges refused to cut the massive budgets earmarked for football and basketball. In order to give women anything, they eliminated sports that had few participants. Plus, with budget cuts a constant issue for colleges, wrestling teams couldn’t prove in their court case that they wouldn’t have been cut anyway. They lost their court cases. Naturally, seeing women who wanted to wrestle would often cause them to foam at the mouth.
Rather than lobbying for some of the football money or trying to enlist women wrestlers on their side, many men’s wrestling teams pressed their grievances harder. The U.S. team’s fortunes sunk lower still. Even after women’s wrestling was added to the Games in 2004, the American team could barely host qualified athletes. The 13 medals won in the late ’80s shrank to only 3 in 2012 and 2016.
Of course, the whole world wrestles, as I’ve painstakingly explained. When the IOC started looking for sports to cut in order to add “new” popular ones, the whole world could have made its wrestling case. But the problem is that American TV drives Olympic sport popularity to a great extent. Senegal, Mongolia, Turkey, and Brazil found it hard to make a convincing case if the Americans weren’t going to play. They needed the Americans, who are among the best lobbiers in the world. And the Americans needed women.
The Tide Turns
The irony is that part of the reason the IOC pushed out wrestling was to lessen its own historical chauvinism. To clean up its own antagonistic past against women athletes, the IOC wanted sports federations to add women to their boards and welcome women in their athletic competitions. When the 2013 verdict came down, the men asked for help from the entire wrestling community, including women–especially women. They got it. And the federations seemed to have a change of heart. FILA (international wrestling federation) put women on their executive committee. USA Wrestling reformed and added a sub-group to promote women’s wrestling.
As this was happening behind the scenes, wrestling was given new life. Rio 2016 would be a kind of proving ground. Even though the U.S. didn’t gain a lot of medals, the remarkable match between three-time-gold-winning Yoshida Saori and Helen Maroulis took place. Maroulis upset one of the most popular wrestlers in the world–certainly the most heralded in Japan ahead of the 2016 contests. (Yoshida has been forgiven since and was one of the few athletes who carried the torch in the 2020 Opening Ceremonies.)
America hardly noticed at the time. But U.S. wrestling noticed. Maroulis highlighted their glossy, 17-page Long Range Plan–clean cut, blonde, highly-religious, and articulate Maroulis. She became the poster child for the U.S. that Yoshida was in Japan.
In the intervening years, schools also found that a better way to address Title IX was to add women wrestlers, that “…the answer to the survival for men’s wrestling was women’s wrestling.” Over the past couple of decades, girls’ participation in wrestling in middle and high school has tripled. Americans started winning world championships again.
Stars, Stories, and Epics Yet to Come
Thus, wrestling lived to fight another day, and these past days in Tokyo 2020 have hosted stupendous contests. If you haven’t seen them, you can dial up Replays on the medal contests at nbcolympics.com. The blog here describes many of the great international competitors, making it clear that the Americans would have their hands full with the Russians, Georgians, Mongolians, Turks, Nigerians, Cubans, Serbians, Indians, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhstanis, Italians, and Iranians filled the top seeds. (And that’s just the men).
There are so many great stories:
Blessing & Karaoke: The first Nigerian woman to win a medal took on the the first black American woman to win a medal, Tamyra Mensah-Stock. Mensah-Sock off the mat wears spectacles and sings karaoke. Oborududu has a brilliant smile. But both are tigers in the circle and their gold medal match was well contested.
The Magic Man: David Taylor competed against the greatest in the world, Hassan Yazdanicharati. Both had won before; both had lost before, only to each other.
All My Girls Wrestle: The Disney movie Dangal chronicles the story of Mahavir Phogat who taught his daughters to wrestle, supposedly because he never did produce sons. Two daughters have gone Olympic, and this year their cousin Vinesh Phoghat made it proudly into the quarterfinals.
Sister Love: These Japanese sisters, Kawai Yukako and Risako, both vied for gold. Older sister dropped weight in order to make room for younger sister in her weight class.
For His Namesake: Gable Dan Steveson was named for wrestling great Dan Gable, a former medalist and wrestling coach. Steveson’s dramatic come-from-behind in his match against the best Georgian in the world prompted a backflip, despite him being 125k (275 lbs). It’s a barn-burner of a match.
The Russian Tank vs. Captain America is what the Washington Post has billed the marquee finale match, between multi-medalist, multi-world champ Abdul Sadulaev and the “ginger phenom.” my nickname for Kyle Snyder. Snyder at aged 19 had already beat two “legends,” from Azerbaijan and Russia. Now a third Russian dropped weight to challenge him in the 97kg class. Snyder hasn’t wrestled much or very well in the last few years. Sadulaev is phenomenal and Russian.
And the Russians have a history. Although, apparently, so does everyone else.
I wrote about Maroulis’ and Snyder’s victory in Rio before. Check the stories out here.