Wrestling with a son’s Olympic dreams cut short

The abrupt axing of wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games has upset athletes and fans across the world.

Wrestling doesn't need a special climate - no snow necessary, no water needed, no mountains [AP]

No parent wants to see a child’s dreams crushed. But that’s exactly what happened to me when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games. And I am not alone. Thousands of parents around the world are feeling the same sense of loss and grieving for their child’s lifelong dream, snatched away without warning. 

My youngest son Sam was 10 years-old when he first started talking about the Olympics. His two older brothers both wrestled. Ben spent a year on the mat at the University of North Carolina and Max wrestled in high school, but preferred to play football in college. We all humoured Sam about his Olympic goals until it became apparent that he had talent and drive and desire. He was about nine or 10 when he won his first national championship in freestyle (one of the Olympic styles) and he was second in Greco Roman (the other Olympic style). 

Since then, he has spent every spring and summer training. As a two-income, middle class family trying to make ends meet and save to put three kids in college, we struggled with how much support we could give. We travelled the country to get him the best competition. We sunk thousands of dollars into special training and camps – because we all believed in his dream to participate in the Olympics, one of oldest sports on the world’s largest stage. 

Of course, Sam is not alone in his dream to be an Olympic wrestler. For the US Olympic trials in April 2012, 249 athletes competed and more than 13,000 fans attended. Those numbers are consistent with participation around the world. Consider that 71 nations participated in wrestling at the 2012 Summer Games in London.  

Shocking decision

As many as 29 nations took home medals. This is not a sport dominated by one country. Ahead of the US in medal count were Russia, Japan, Iran and Azerbaijan. Nations big and small competed and won at least one medal – France, Sweden, North and South Korea, Mongolia and Cuba to name a few. So, I know there are plenty of parents looking at this decision with the same shock that I am. 

Sam is 18 now and still working to make his dream a reality, or at least he was until the IOC pulled the rug out from nearly a decade of blood, sweat and tears. I believe he was getting really close too. Besides winning a national championship on the junior level in both freestyle and Greco Roman, he competed in Hungary for Team USA in the Cadet (16 and 17 year olds) World Championships and won a bronze medal. 

He is now attending the University of Iowa, a school he picked and a team he chose to wrestle for, partly because his head coach, Tom Brands, is an Olympic gold medalist.  

 London 2012: Inside the Olympic Village

So now what? You can say he still has 2016 and he does. I’m sure he will give it a go, but wrestling is an older sport. Unlike swimming where a Missy Franklin, who’s still in high school, can make a splash or gymnastics where fingers are pointed at teams whose athletes look too young – the age of the youngest US Greco Roman wrestler in the 2012 Olympic Games was 20. 

The 20-year-old wrestler, Ellis Coleman, and his story is representative of how wrestling can change lives and why wrestling in the Olympics needs to continue to be a dream and continue to come true. 

I’ve known Ellis since he was a lanky 12-year-old boy. While his father was in jail, his mother raised him and his brother on very little money and lots of luck. Their luck came in the form of a high school wrestling coach named Mike Powell. He steered Ellis and his brother Lillishawn away from trouble and into the wrestling room. Lillishawn now wrestles for Elmhurst College while he works toward a degree. This is what wrestling can do. 

But it’s not just individuals who are at risk from this decision. Wrestling has ancient roots in Iran. The sport is imbedded in its culture and Iran has had great success. Its team won three gold medals in London and according to an article in The Atlantic by writer Max Fisher, Iran has won 35 wrestling medals since 1948. 

Fisher points out that aside from wrestling, weightlifting and taekwondo, Iran has won only one other medal – ever. In a country that can be controversial, wrestling is a source of national pride. 

Olympic dream

You can argue that wrestling is a niche sport, so sports with a bigger fan base such as baseball and softball are more deserving of inclusion. But wrestling is a sport that doesn’t need much in the way of funding. Just a building, a mat, some wrestling shoes and an Olympic dream is born. 

Wrestling doesn’t need a special climate – no snow necessary, no water needed, no mountains. It doesn’t even take a special body type. Olympic wrestling includes weight classes from 55kg to 120kg. There’s no big money in wrestling. Of course, the sport has its stars, but they have yet to reach the endorsement and income level of a Michael Phelps or a Gabby Douglas.  

All those things make wrestling the epitome of Olympic sport. The Olympic creed states

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

The fight to get wrestling reinstated to the games has not been lost yet. One sport will be proposed for 2020 inclusion when the IOC executive board meets in St Petersburg, Russia in May. The final decision will be made at the IOC general assembly in Buenos Aires in September.  

Like all the wrestling parents around the world, I will be watching, holding my breath and hoping that the sport my son has dedicated his life to, will take its rightful place on the Olympic stage. 

Caryn Brooks is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School. 

Follow her on Twitter: @carynwardbrooks