Mesa wrestling coach Bob Williams has taken multiple trips to Europe (namely Germany), the Middle East and the former Soviet Union during the past couple decades, both with high school kids and international competitors.
Corona del Sol coach Jim Martinez was part of the 1984 Olympic Games. Red Mountain coach David DiDomenico and Desert Vista coach David Gonzalez have been active as coaches and advocates for years with different age groups, abilities and kids’ styles.
Chandler senior Dalton Brady won his fourth state championship two weeks ago. Fellow state champions Alex Bambic (Desert Vista) and Ted Rico (Combs) are among the too-many-to-count with Olympic dreams, like the ones Phoenix Maryvale-graduate Henry Cejudo earned and won in 2008.
Such grandiose goals are perilously close to being pinned after the International Olympic Committee revealed this week it was leaving wrestling out of the Olympic Games beginning in 2020, and that the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro would, at this rate, be wrestling’s last.
This despite the sport’s popularity around the world. Athletes from 71 countries participated in wrestling in the 2012 games in London, and wrestlers from 29 different countries earned medals.
“I was devastated,” Brady said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Grappling (pun not intended) with such unexpected news — which it was to wrestling advocates and followers in the East Valley — has been difficult to get a grip on. It’s hard having lifelong ambitions and training regiments unlike nearly every other sport, and the next day wondering what it was all for.
“In my (overseas) travels I didn’t see many football fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds,” Williams said. “Besides soccer it was wrestling. It’s a blue-collar sport, not expensive, you can compete across the board. It’s such a shock to hear when it’s been such an iconic part (of the Olympics).”
Decisions still have to be made. Wrestling will now compete against seven other sports vying for an Olympic spot in 2020: baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu (martial arts). A presentation is expected in May with a final vote on the matter likely coming in September.
To that end there’s hope, be it false optimism out of desperation, or a real chance the IOC will change its choices. The social media movements on Twitter and Facebook have been fast and furious worldwide this week.
But the idea that wrestling is no longer worthy, while golf, biathlon and equestrian are?
“I bet it would push wrestling back big-time,” Brady said. “Why would kids do a sport without any chance of Olympics as a goal?
“...I think it’s embarrassing. Something’s not right. I still don’t believe it’s happening. Maybe this is some publicity stunt to get more people to join.”
Part of the original Olympic Games in 1896, even the Olympic Hymn’s English translation includes, “At running and at wrestling and at throwing, shine in the momentum of noble contests.”
“I was a better-than-average wrestler and never imagined (the Olympics) until a certain level in college,” Martinez said. “It was a door that opened and changed my life. You don’t know when something will change lives and how many others have been touched in life because of it or another person. That’s a huge, huge motivator for kids because the opportunity exists and you never know if or when it might come to you.”
Beneath the incredulity, confusion and sorrow, however, was an acknowledgement that wrestling doesn’t necessarily translate to what the IOC might be looking for in these modern Olympic Games. Brady noted the sport’s rules have change and is not easy for a non-wrestling fan to understand the technicalities and nuances behind scoring points. That issue, however, exists through most Olympic sports (summer and winter), which Joe Q. Public is only exposed for a couple days or weeks every two or four years.
Television ratings for Olympic wrestling matches have never been high. It’s not a money-maker beyond spin-offs such as the MMA and WWE. What happens locally if this turns out to be a worst-case scenario in 2020 and beyond is anyone’s guess. Coaches are worried about whether the sport being dropped would affect the U.S. Olympic Training and its funding for kids to go to college and continue training. Though confident local, high school and college wrestling would stay strong in numbers, Williams wondered whether Title IX and the federal laws toward equity in numbers would have a more widespread effect.
Not so for Brady, at least. He’s eyed the 2016 games but knows that 2020 would be more realistic for him since he’d be out of college.
“I’ll just keep doing what I’m going to do,” he said. “It’s not going to change anything. There’s something to look forward to, wrestling won’t be done for me.”
There are national and international championships worth wrestling for, but they might not include a gold medal and a worldwide audience, which could be the biggest takedown.
“For Henry Cejudo and tons of kids at all ages, the Olympic is the epitome,” Williams said. “Most won’t compete at that level, and it’s still an iconic level to shoot for. Kids getting into the sport look to Olympians. It’s a real high honor and worthy of the respect they get. It’s been a kick to the gut.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.