Rulon Gardner’s epic upset of Russian wrestling great Alexander Karelin in 2000 remains one of the most compelling moments of the modern Olympics.
Starting in 2020, youngsters looking to Gardner and Karelin for inspiration won’t have a chance to excel on the sport’s biggest stage.
Gardner and nearly everyone else associated with the sport in the U.S. were jolted Tuesday when International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games.
The move is set to take effect for the 2020 Olympics and eliminates a sport that’s been a staple of both the ancient and modern games.
"It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports," Gardner told The Associated Press by phone from Logan, Utah. "To get the death penalty out of nowhere."
The decision by the IOC to phase out wrestling will leave the U.S. without one of its most successful Olympic sports.
The only sports in which the Americans have won more medals than wrestling is swimming and track and field—and those two have far more medal opportunities.
Americans have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, by far the most of any nation. Though the U.S. had slipped in recent Olympic cycles, it bounced back with a pair of London Games gold medalists in Jordan Burroughs—possibly the best wrestler in the world—and Jake Varner.
"I do think wrestling people are the strongest in the world, and they’re resilient. And we’ll come out of whatever happens. But short term, yeah, it’s sad," 2004 Olympic gold medalist and Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said.
"I just think of the kids in our program that dream of being Olympic champions. And to think that now that’s no longer an opportunity just so the IOC stay fresh and continue to rotate sports and whatever their plan is—it’s tough to think about."
Wrestling is also one of the most popular youth sports in the U.S. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that the sport was sixth among prep boys with nearly 275,000 competing in 2010-11.
"Wrestling is the Olympics. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most demanding and most humbling sport there is. It teaches you so many life lessons," said Jake Herbert, who wrestled for the U.S. in the London Games.
Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. They will be vying for a single opening in 2020.
USA Wrestling executive director Richard Bender calls his sport "one of the most diverse," with nearly 200 nations from all continents participating.
"It is an inclusive sport which provides opportunities worldwide, regardless of geography, race, gender or physical characteristics," he said. "We look forward to telling the story about wrestling to the International Committee leadership and the entire world about our great sport and why it should be part of the Olympic movement forever."
The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020. The final vote will be in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. "It is important to remember that today’s action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world."
Rejoining the Olympic roster for 2020 seems unlikely. Still, former Olympic champion and current Iowa coach Tom Brands said the international wrestling community needs to fight this ouster.
"It’s one of those things where your first thoughts are pretty bad," Brands said. "There’s nothing more sacred to living than learning to overcome struggle. Wrestling is that equivalent, more than any other form of sport, recreation or entertainment. It’s worse than death because you can’t control death, and this is something that maybe we can control or could have controlled. We need to look forward to May and the process in September."
Reaction to the move was swift on social media. A Facebook page titled "Save Olympic Wrestling" was started Tuesday morning and had nearly 5,000 members by noon. A number of fellow Olympians also displayed their displeasure over the decision on Twitter by using the hashtag (hash)SaveOlympicWrestling.
Wrestling can be tough for the average Olympics fan to follow, which is why it rarely earns a TV slot in prime time. Its scoring system can seem complicated and arcane to newcomers. The medal stand is often dominated by athletes who aren’t nearly as marketable as gymnasts and swimmers.
Still, it produces memorable characters like Karelin, the prolifically strong three-time Olympic champion and hero in his native Russia. There are also American icons like Sanderson and Gardner, who beat Karelin and later survived both a plane crash and frostbite.
"It just seems like wrestling, if we don’t fight we’re going to die," Gardner said. "At this point, it’s time for everybody to man up and support the program."