Sport, no matter how rooted it may be in tradition, can never be fully protected from the claws of capitalism and commercialisation.
We were reminded of this last month when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) elected to drop Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling from the 2020 Olympics despite wrestling’s tie to the ancient Olympics and having been in every modern Olympic Games except 1900.
As wrestling looks to exit the Olympic stage, a number of extreme sports will bid to take its place, including wakeboarding, roller sports, and sport climbing. Whatever sport replaces wrestling, the IOC hopes it will increase ticket sales, television ratings and ultimately make the Olympics a greater revenue producing entity.
However, in their quest to push for financial profits, the IOC terminated a different Olympic tradition that had been gaining recent momentum – female athletes’ inclusion and acceptance in combat sports.
For generations, women were dissuaded from participating in any sport that involved contact between athletes, driven instead to compete in individual sports, such as figure skating, tennis, and golf. Women’s participation in contact sports was said to jeopardise their reproductive capabilities, demonstrating that women and girls were valued primarily as mothers and homemakers.
Over the years, women grappled through political battles to compete as athletes in innumerable sports. For the longstanding Olympic sport of wrestling, that historic breakthrough finally came in 2004 when women’s freestyle wrestling made its official debut – 108 years after the first modern Olympic Games that included men’s wrestling.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it took boxing just as long, with men’s Olympic boxing beginning in 1904 and women’s boxing inaugurated at the most recent London 2012 Games.
Now, with the hasty push of a bureaucratic pencil and desire for increased capital, wrestling has been wiped from the mat, along with the years of advocacy it took for female wrestlers to compete along side their male counterparts.
The cut of Olympic wrestling will undoubtedly have detrimental effects on men’s wrestling programmes across the world, but the harm could be disproportionately damaging for women’s wresting.
Carol Huynh, who wrestled for Canada winning Olympic gold in 2008 and bronze in 2012, told Al Jazeera, “If the IOC recommendation goes through and wrestling is not one of the core 25 sports, our federal funding will be reduced drastically and this will affect our entire program.”
Elena Pirozhkova, who represented the United States at the 2012 Olympics, likewise fears that the loss of wrestling as an Olympic sport will have deleterious impacts for female wrestlers that will ripple through to junior levels: “Cutting it out of the Olympics will affect the training at the senior level almost immediately. The resident program at the Olympic training centre would get cut and there would be no funding from the United States Olympic Committee. This will cause a trickle down effect to the sport…possibly make colleges be more resistant to adding women’s wrestling and discourage young athletes.”
Wrestling is an especially physical sport showcasing powerful takedowns, precise trips, complex rolls, and explosive throws. The sport’s intense training and brutal physicality contributed to women’s exclusion.
With women finally competing on the Olympic platform, the loss of women’s wrestling is symbolic of the struggles women have gone through to participate on male-dominated terrain.
Both Pirozhkova and Huynh felt strongly that wrestling provides a unique space where women and girls can further society’s push towards gender equity. A sport that builds “strength, endurance, body awareness, strategy, willpower and grit,” says Pirozhkova, “those qualities…should be seen in men, but also in young girls and women.”
“[Wrestling] provides not only a way to be in control of our bodies, but to feel powerful because of it. To feel strong, confident and able, rather than meek and subservient is very empowering as a female in a patriarchal society“
– Carol Huynh, Olympic wrestler
For women specifically, Huynh says that a highly physical sport like wrestling “provides, not only a way to be in control of our bodies, but to feel powerful because of it. To feel strong, confident and able, rather than meek and subservient is very empowering as a female in a patriarchal society.”
Huynh argues further that when women excel in a sport historically reserved for men, it raises consciousness: “It is important to have female role models in sports and careers that are traditionally seen as masculine. Raising awareness that women can accomplish what they set out to do regardless of constricting social expectations is so important for all youth to see, male and female.”
It has taken society far too long to accept women’s participation in combat sports.
Now as women are breaking through the sexist barriers that have excluded them from sport participation, the IOC delivers a symbolic and material blow to female athletes everywhere.
It is critical that the IOC reinstates wrestling as an Olympic sport, not only because of wrestling’s rich Olympic tradition, but also because wrestling now breaks tradition by including female combat sport athletes.
David Mayeda is a lecturer at the University of Auckland in the Department of Sociology. He also blogs at Sociologyinmotion.