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.