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Why the world should be worried about the future of Olympic wrestling

Franklin Gomez was on the wrong side of a call in Rio (Photo/Robbert Wijtman)

For most people the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will be remembered for Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Usain Bolt and many more champions. Unfortunately for wrestling fans, it may be remembered as the beginning of the end.

That's because what got the most coverage for the sport in the mainstream media was not Helen Maroulis, America's first woman to take gold or America's youngest wrestler to take gold Kyle Snyder, but it was two Mongolian coaches so outraged by a call from the referees that cost their wrestler the chance for a bronze medal, they stripped down, one all the way to his briefs, on the mat. The story was picked up by USA Today, Deadspin, Time and the Associated Press, just to name a few.

To be sure you can make the case that the Mongolian wrestler sealed his fate by putting on his track shoes for the end of the match and the refs were correct to reprimand him for running instead of wrestling, but that's not what the world outside of wrestling saw. They saw shenanigans worthy of the WWE not the Olympics.

The Mongolian coaches took off clothes while disputing a call in the bronze-medal match (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

In light of the tenuous nature of wrestling's place in the Olympics beyond 2024 that is not only unfortunate, it could be the death knell for one of the original Olympic sports.

Wrestling fans can probably tell you where they were on the day in February of 2013 when the International Olympic Committee shockingly and seemingly out of nowhere voted to drop wrestling starting with the 2020 games. The IOC reinstated wrestling seven months later, but it is only guaranteed a spot through the 2024 games.

I have a son who wrestles for the University of Iowa and who has had Olympic dreams since he was 10 years old. Regardless of whether he makes his dream come true, the dream itself has affected his life in too many positive ways to count. For him and the thousands of other young men and women, as well as kids who are just starting in the sport, dropping wrestling from the games, any games, would be a travesty.

It's been well documented how many nations win medals in wrestling. In Rio 25 nations had an athlete on the wrestling podium. There is not one nation that can claim a dominant dynasty like the U.S. can in basketball. OK, maybe the Russians are a consistent force as a team every Olympics, but the competition is right there on their heels. That's because wrestling is an equal opportunity sport. You don't need a fancy gym or costly equipment to excel. You just need talent, strength, a willingness to work hard and a drive to succeed. But succeed or not, wrestling changes lives for the better. It teaches discipline, it instills drive and it cements character. Without the Olympics wrestling could lose its powers to persuade young people to put in the work and dream big.

That's why the Mongolian coaches' spectacle and its prominence in mainstream news are so unfortunate. But it is certainly not the only thing that happened in Rio to put the spotlight on why the sport is in need of an overhaul.

Take American Frank Molinaro's repechage match where the referee allowed Molinaro's Ukrainian opponent to slap him, bite him and twist his ankle with no repercussions. Molinaro went on to win anyway.

Or the subjective passivity calls -- one of them cost American bronze medalist J'den Cox a semifinal match and the chance to go for gold. If we want to bring new fans to the sport making it difficult to understand and based on a referee's subjective call is counterproductive. I know plenty of people think the passivity calls promote action, but more often than not, as far as I can tell, they promote mistakes by the athlete who is put on the clock. Also deciding which athlete is put on the clock can be seemingly nonsensical to the casual fan, let alone someone who is new to the sport.

J'den Cox was unaware he was losing in the semifinals against Turkey's Selim Yasar (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Another rule that needs to be changed was also highlighted in the match between Cox and Selim Yasar of Turkey. It's the tie-breaking criteria. In that match it's clear Cox thought he would win on criteria. It was only at the very end and when it was too late that Cox realized he needed to score just barely missing a final takedown that would have sealed a win. Why does the sport have criteria that even the athletes have trouble understanding? Why can't this be a sudden death situation, the first one to score wins? That's something every fan can understand.

But the worst call made was in the match between Puerto Rican wrestler Franklin Gomez and Ikhtiyor Navruzov of Uzbekistan. In short, the refs called what should have been 2 points for Gomez, 2 points for his opponent, ending Gomez' tournament and keeping him from a chance at a medal. NCAA and Olympic champion Cael Sanderson took to twitter calling it a "disgrace." Wrestling's governing body United World Wrestling (UWW) issued a statement reprimanding the referees and pulling them from further duties in Rio.

But that's little solace to Gomez. Unlike other sports such as track where a relay team can rerun a race, wrestling has no rule allowing for a rematch.

So what much of the world will remember about wrestling in Rio is not the shock of Helen Maroulis who beat a three-time Olympic champion from Japan to win gold, not the class of Jordan Burroughs who won gold at the London Games and failed to repeat in Rio, not the strength of young Kyle Snyder who wrestled like a veteran, no, the face of wrestling from Rio will be the antics of two Mongolian coaches so frustrated by the reality of what wrestling has become they go just short of the full Monty.

If this isn't a clear call to make changes, I don't know what is.

Comments

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johnnyknj (1) about 2 years ago
You are absolutely right. I have been saying the same for the last two days. The Gomez incident and the video of the officials "discussing" it was an absolute embarrassment. We always promote wrestling by stressing it's egalitarian and objective nature. May the best person compete and win without influence or favoritism from coaches, officials or fans. The doings in Rio made a joke of that. I hate to say it, but If wrestling can't do better it doesn't deserve to be in the Olympics.
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for your comment, Johnny. I'm hoping wrestling can do better than that! Getting people talking is the first step.
Asimons (2) about 2 years ago
Questions for the wrestling community as a whole...Are we hurting the sport by trying to protect the sanctity of wrestling? Do we want to be the WWE? I think no but which gets more viewers and attendance?

As a sport we must ask ourselves, did we really learn from almost losing wrestling in the Olympics? Did we change enough to keep wrestling in? If the top story is coaches stripping then I think we all know the answer.

Great article. We are not promised past 2020, we need to act like it.
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Great questions Asimons! Thanks for reading and for adding insight.
Paboy593 (2) about 2 years ago
Great article!! Fantastic read. I'm a USA wrestling fan through and through, but I ask this question? Does any blame fall on the coaches for cox blunder, and not challenging molinaros un-given exposure for two??
frankenberry (1) about 2 years ago
I believe there has been protest(s) won and matche(s) re-wrestled in the olympics...Kolat for one...
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for reading and for your comment, Frankenberry. If indeed there is a mechanism for a rematch then we have to ask why it didn't happen in the Gomez match?
Backarch (1) about 2 years ago
You have skipped the underlying issue in the Gomez and Mongolian affair. The same officiating crew made calls to favor the wrestler from AZB in both. Leading many to believe that some corruption had taken place.
The Mongolian coaches behavior may have been absurd but if you read more of Cael's tweets you may understand why it was the only thing they could do to call attention to the issue.
The corruption was also one of the reasons given for the elimination of the sport and unlike the other factors you mentioned is a prime cause as to why wrestling would be eliminated.
If a coach acts dumb they ban the coach but if there is a level of criminal activity that cannot be reigned in then they eliminate the sport.
viratas (1) about 2 years ago
Caryn,

Great article and thank you for posting. One would have thought that nearly being eliminated from the Olympics would have served as a wake-up call to UWW. But after watching this past Olympics one thing is clear, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Corruption, bad officiating and what ever else you wish to call it is the gold standard of international wrestling. I agree there needs to be changes and simplification to make it more interesting to a casual fan.
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for reading and commenting Backarch. I believe Brent Metcalf said the same thing in his tweets about what went on Sunday. Another reason (and as you point out, maybe a more important reason), to be worried about wrestling's place in the games.
Ninojman (1) about 2 years ago
Hey in the match with Helen. The 3x timer backed up for 5 minutes and Helen got hit for passivity ! It was a terrible match to watch. Best two athlete's in the world and you allow one to run away from wrestling until the last few seconds. But like snoop dogg said, dont hate the player, hate the game.
Scottb (1) about 2 years ago
Love ur article . U are right about everything u said about wrestling Rio. I'm so Saddened about the things that happen to Olympic wrestling in Rio. I love the sport of wrestling. All the years I took my son to wrestling practices and tournaments from he was 6 years old till now frist year in College. I have never wrestled but all the times I spent with my son and watched him train and Compete. I have so much respect for wrestlers. Becouse of my son I love the sport of wrestling. That said wrestling in other countries seems like boxing in the old days. Corrupt!!!! And it's ruining Olympic wrestling. The calls that were made is ridiculous by the level of referees that was suppose to be there. There needs to be change. And wish The United States wrestling cold do something about it. That's my two cents. I love the sport of wrestling!
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for your 2 cents, Scott B. We share the bond of being accidental fans - all my sons wrestled and I thank them for it because it allowed me to watch and learn about wrestling - now my favorite sport. I certainly don't have the answers, but as a community I hope we can come up with a course of action to get results. Wrestlers don't quit and neither should we.
jtrosalez (1) about 2 years ago
There's a lot of whiny homerism and ethnocentrism in this article.

Did Maroulis and Synder have the only noteworthy accomplishments of all the wrestling that went down in Rio? Apparently Kaori Icho becoming the first wrestler to EVER win four gold medals and Mijaín López winning his third gold medal weren't that big of a deal.

The rant about J'den Cox with its criticism of criteria was really laughable. There are VERY big scoreboards that clearly indicate in the event of a tie who is winning a match based off criteria with a wrestler's score underlined. It ain't rocket science, there aren't any algorithms that a wrestler needs to compute to figure out who is winning based off criteria. I have no idea how we can make scoreboard interpretation any simpler. Maybe we should go back to the ball grab and the clinch or any of the other horrible rules that freestyle and greco-roman wrestling used to have?

Now as far as the ethnocentrism goes this piece takes the classic route of applying the norms of the US and makes a value judgment on the Mongolian coaches' protest by referring to them as "antics" when in fact it appears that stripping one's clothes is viewed as an acceptable display of protest in Mongolia (Ganbat Namjilsangarav provides a good write up on this for the AP www.summergames.ap.org/article/mongolias-olympic-wrestling-protest-gets-public-backing). While some might not agree with the method of protest, it is important to do some background research first before trivializing the norms of other cultures that are different from the US.
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for comment jtrosalez. Yes this is from an American point of view for an American audience, but not meant to be dismissive of other cultures and other accomplishments. I would contend that if wrestling wants to solidify it's place in the Olympics it needs to get the American public and media on board. If NBC made wrestling a priority (in other words if it drew a big audience) do you think the IOC would drop it? My point is that wrestling here has a huge image/marketing/brand problem and Rio did more to hurt it than help it. Of course we can agree to disagree and I appreciate the comment.
theandyb (1) about 2 years ago
The only way to get more media coverage for wrestling is to win more. What are the four most viewed sports in the United States in the olympics? Gymnastics, track, swimming, and basketball. Why? Because they rack up medals and the US dominates them. No casual fan of wrestling in the US wants to watch a finals match between Azerbaijan and Iran, they want to watch their countrymen dominate. The rules are fine, its the politics and arrogance of officials which holds wrestling back. As far as criteria goes, it is very clear, and all an overtime period would do is discourage scoring in regulation. How long would this period be? 1 min? 2 min? Unlimited like the world trials were a couple years back? Again, why would spectators want to watch a 1-1 match go 8 or 9 minutes?
greff (1) about 2 years ago
That was definitely 2 for Molinaro on the exposure what match were his coaches watching not to challenge and what was the ref thinking not to call it????
kimcjk3430 (1) about 2 years ago
Valid comments all. A bigger reason for the death knell of Olympic Wrestling, is Kyle Snyder's gold medal match was listed at 2:15 est., and they chose to leave handball on, and I checked all NBC's channels, before hurriedly streaming it to my Mobile Device.
jtrosalez (1) about 2 years ago
Caryn,

The wrestling world does not rotate around the US when it comes to freestyle and greco-roman wrestling. If that were the case we would have the unfortunate pleasure of seeing US folkstyle in the Olympics.
USAJim45 (1) about 2 years ago
"Beginning of the end"... "Death Kneel"... I am confused as to whether this is hyperbole, an attempt at sensational journalism to get clicks or simply your true viewpoint on Wrestling at the Olympic Games. If it is the latter, then that is your right to such a viewpoint.
Your viewpoint is just vastly different than the viewpoint in the wrestling circles that I run in.
Life is not fair. We cannot all win gold medals. As a kid in the sport my dad never let be blame others for an outcome. As a wrestling mom I'm sure you can relate. I'm sure we are not the only country or sport leaving the games shaking their heads. I saw similar situations in a broad cross section of events.
Contending that when things do not go our way, that there is a conspiracy or we are intentionally cheated is not the message that this generation needs. Should sport strive for fairness, absolutely! But do unfortunate situations occur? They do. Sport should prepares us for life, right?
I understand your article was aimed at an American based audience, but if we are talking about the Games as a whole, the sport world wide as a whole, would it be prudent to take a larger viewpoint?
So because somethings weren't perfect or didn't go our way, it's an excuse to cry foul and use phrases like "death kneel'. I guess one can take that stance...or the alternative, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on. I saw our US wrestlers choose the alternative. Despite adversity or setback, they stood up, dusted themselves off and carried on. I heard no excuses. But maybe that's why they are Olympians.
Caryn Ward (1) about 2 years ago
Thanks for your opinion, Jim. The article was not meant as clickbait or hyperbole. It is my opinion and I stand by it. As far as crying foul, that was not the intent of the article, it's meant to show that people who are not part of the wrestling fan base have one take away from Rio - that wrestling is a sport where clownish things happen such as coaches who take their clothes off. If we want to stay in the games that has to change - making the sport easy to understand and fair will go a long way toward that in my opinion.
Asimons (2) about 2 years ago
So many are missing the point....read the last line of the article again.

If this isn't a clear call to make changes, I don't know what is.

None of our opinions matter. Attack the author's opinions all you want but the fact remains WRESTLING IS STILL IN TROUBLE!! Our opinions about what happened mean nothing. What actually happened is wrestling was passed over and the biggest story from wrestling in the olympics were coaches stripping.
USAJim45 (1) about 2 years ago
to whom it may concern,
Just gonna go ahead and leave this here...

intermatwrestle.com/articles/16716
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