When I found out that the International Olympic Committee decided to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics, I blinked, told someone to pinch me, blinked, told someone to punch me, and then peered outside to see whether unicorns were rollerblading down Dunster Street.
They weren’t, so I knew this was for real. Next, I fired up Chrome and witnessed the online campaign that was unfolding in a machine-gun burst of tweets: #saveolympicwrestling. #saveolympicwrestling. #saveolympicwrestling.
Why in Zeus’s name was an Olympic fixture since 708 B.C.E. suddenly nixed? Has the Olympic mission to celebrate sport imploded? (More on this later; the short answer is yes.)
Apparently, the International Olympic Committee was deciding between cutting wrestling and cutting modern pentathlon. Modern pentathlon, which involves shooting, horseback riding, fencing, and swimming (although not all at once, alas) seeks to mimic the skills required of a nineteenth century cavalry officer.
(Protests abound for modern pentathlon itself to be replaced by ultramodern pentathlon, which would simulate the skills of a 21st century tank commando in Baghdad. I’ve also heard requests for Call-Of-Duty Pentathlon.)
The IOC claimed that wrestling was phased out partly due to floor-hugging ratings. According to its statement, the IOC examined all the sports on nearly forty criteria, such as TV views and popularity, “to ensure the Olympic Games remain relevant to sports fans of all generations.” So wrestling was just unpopular, like the last kid picked for kickball during recess.
This can’t be the whole story. Wrestling has federations in 177 countries, while modern pentathlon has federations in only 108. Many countries in Eastern Europe and central Asia see wrestling as their national sport. This past summer, 71 nations sent wrestlers to London, and only 26 sent modern pentathletes. Moreover, modern pentathlon averages 12.5 viewers globally, whereas wrestling reels in twice that amount.
As in every tragicomedy in which icy data subverts the fronted story, the usual suspect makes a cameo appearance: politics. As the LA Times reports, the son of a former IOC president and current member of the executive board, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., is also vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
In any case, here’s the clinch: the decision to etch wrestling off the Olympic program doesn’t just hurt sports fans across the world. It also corrupts the Olympian mission. Instead of celebrating athleticism for its own sake, the athletic festival panders to popularity polls; instead of glorifying what is difficult and hard, it chases ratings. The IOC’s decision to cut wrestling shouldn’t concern just wrestlers; it should concern us all.
What is more, the IOC decision reflects how the digital bricolage we call modernity shifts the athletic landscape. Press coverage converges on a select squadron of athletes, usually runners and swimmers and basketball players, who participate in sports the average family of 2.59 can understand (ball goes into net = win). Sports, like wrestling, that are suffused with techniques opaque to non-initiates are doomed to the bench. They are tweeted less. Worshipping Internet hit counts and commercialism refracts our perceptions about which sports are worth showing.
All this is well and good, except that the purpose of the Olympics was never about online ratings. Were ancient Thebans live-tweeting the latest minotaur-slaying contest? Do you think Milo of Croton—the ancient Greek wrestler who supposedly carried a bull on his shoulders before slaughtering it and scarfing it down in one day—gave a mite that his Olympic match didn’t crack YouTube’s top ten? Well, he told me he didn’t. A central purpose of the original Olympics was to celebrate athleticism just for the sake of athleticism, and there is something downright pure about that.
In fact, it’s still a central pillar of the modern Olympics, which is supposed to “oppose any commercial abuse of sport.” That last quote comes from rule 1.2.10 of the IOC charter.
All of which is why we need wrestling back on the Olympic program. The IOC’s decision to drop wrestling is up for reversal in both May and September, and every second beats worriedly for this grandfather clock of sports. Let’s honor the Olympic ideal by recognizing that the purpose of the ancient events is not to push us forward through the age of modern media, but rather to bring us back to a time when none of that stuff mattered anyway.
In the meantime, I better go post this on twitter. #saveolympicwrestling.
Gregory D. Kristof ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House.