It would be an understatement to say the Illinois high school wrestling community was rocked by news early Tuesday that wrestling would be eliminated as an Olympic sport.
The shock waves reached much further.
“My wife’s brother is married to Dan Gable’s daughter,” Lincoln-Way West wrestling coach Brian Glynn said, invoking the name of perhaps the most famous wrestler and coach in U.S. history. “I talked to her first thing (Tuesday) and (Gable) didn’t even know about it. I think everyone is stunned.”
The International Olympic Committee voted Tuesday in Switzerland to remove wrestling from the summer Olympics program starting in 2020.
That Gable, an Olympic gold medalist and 15-time national champion coach at Iowa, was caught unaware by the decision speaks to just how blindsided some coaches felt Tuesday.
“That’s just unbelievable,” Sandburg coach Eric Siebert said. “Wrestling and track are the oldest Olympic sports. The (IOC) is continuing a trend of mockery, including ridiculous events at the expense of real sports. I’m waiting for checkers to become an Olympic sport.”
Wrestling, which was a part of the ancient Roman Olympics and was one of nine sports in the first modern Games in 1896, has been eliminated as a “core” sport.
According to USA Today, wrestling’s international governing body can petition in May to be included in the 2020 Games. It would compete against seven other sports: baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu, a form of martial arts.
“This is the stupidest thing ever. … Look at the number of sports you never heard of that are not getting the ax,” Joliet Central coach Pat O’Connell said. “This should be the talk of the state tournament this weekend, for sure. There will be about 35,000 people there watching it in all the sessions over the three days.”
But will those crowds be around when wrestling is no longer an Olympic sport?
“There will always be a trickle effect, and you worry about it in this case,” Providence coach Keith Healy said. “For an example, look at concussions on the pro football level and the way that affected the rules all the way down. No doubt this could be detrimental to our sport.”
“It makes me worry for the sport of wrestling,” Joliet West coach Joey Benefiel said. “Title IX already has done its damage to the sport, and with something like this, you wonder what the future holds. I hope wrestling is still there by the time I have kids.
“Look at it this way. If the NFL was taken away, what would the future be for football? Would college football be the same, and would high school football be as important as it is? It’s very scary.”
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, 475 collegiate level wrestling programs have been eliminated since 1972. Glynn, a two-time All-American at Illinois and a member of four state champion Providence teams from 1996 to 2000, had sensed a reversal of that trend in recent years.
“This is a huge blow,” he said. “It scares everybody.”
That U.S. youth, high school and college wrestlers don’t follow the Olympic disciplines of Greco-Roman and Freestyle may keep the sport going, according to Healy.
“It’s depressing,” Healy said. “Our sport has been around a long, long time. It will be interesting to see what happens throughout the United States. We’re the only country that wrestles folkstyle, so we may survive. But kids grow up seeing all those Olympics gold medalists and dream about being those guys. Now they won’t have that.”
Contributing: Dick Goss