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Don't drop wrestling from Olympics

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 11:04 AM EST, Thu February 14, 2013
U.S. wrestler Jacob Stephen Varner, right, celebrates victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev at the 2012 London Games.
U.S. wrestler Jacob Stephen Varner, right, celebrates victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev at the 2012 London Games.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: Committee proposes dropping wrestling from 2020 Summer Games
  • He says wrestlers have had lives raised up and have exalted their nations at the Olympics
  • He says wrestling goes back to the very first games in 708 B.C.
  • Downey: Young wrestlers will lose important goal; Olympic committee should reconsider

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist.

(CNN) -- Been thinking about wrestlers.

No, not about Hulk Hogan or Andre the Giant or The Rock. I mean real wrestlers. Wrestlers who wrestle for real.

Wrestlers who won't wrestle in the 2020 Olympic Games if the International Olympic Committee drop kicks their sport. It was revealed Tuesday that the IOC is giving serious thought to the elimination of wrestling from Olympic competition.

Been thinking about Steve Fraser.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

He was a deputy sheriff from Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I watched him in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on the night he became the first American ever to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. It was shiny. It was gold.

"Knowing me," he said, "I'll probably have it bronzed."

Been thinking about Joe Williams.

Wrestling may be cut from Olympic Games

He was a high school and college wrestling champion from Harvey, Illinois, who was 29 when he finally made it to an Olympic Games. He went to Athens in 2004. He dedicated it to his older brother Steve, a former wrestler who died of heart failure right outside Joe's house in 2003. Joe did his best but did not win a medal.

"I don't care. It was still worth it," he told me. "Every long, hard minute from Day 1."

Been thinking about Clarissa Chun.

She -- yes, she -- is a wrestler. A mere 4 feet, 11 inches tall. (Women's wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004.) Chun was a kindergarten teacher from Honolulu, the daughter of a Japanese-American mom and a Chinese-American dad. She defeated a seven-time national champion in the U.S. trials in 2008. Then she went to the 2012 London Olympics and got herself a bronze medal.

Also been thinking a little bigger. Been thinking about Rulon Gardner, of course.

He bulked up to 475 pounds before NBC's "The Biggest Loser" invited him to be a contestant. But before that, he stunned the 11-time world champion, Aleksandr Karelin, to become the super-sized Cinderella of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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I was in Indianapolis on the 2004 day when ol' Rulon qualified for the Olympics once more ... after a motorcycle crash, after dislocating a wrist in a pick-up basketball game and after a snowmobile misadventure led to a case of frostbite and the loss of a toe.

Why keep wrestling?

"To be able to represent us in the greatest sport in the world ... the oldest sport in the world?" Rulon replied. "To get to do that? Wow."

Wow, for sure.

That was my reaction Tuesday and the reaction from wrestlers everywhere -- a "nightmare," the former collegiate king of the mat, Dan Gable, described it in one interview -- at the IOC's proposal (not yet a done deal) that certain sports are to be abandoned by 2020, with wrestling among those on the hit list.

Somewhere among the gods, Hercules weeps.

You might not know your Greco from your Roman, but it was 708 B.C. when wrestling was a part of the first Olympics, historians tell us. And it was 1896 when the so-called "Modern Olympics" were born ... and, yes, wrestling was there in Athens that summer as well.

It is hand-to-hand combat in its essence. A fight with civility.

It is global activity. Afghanistan and Austria have competed in Olympic wrestling, as have Belgium and Bolivia, and Cambodia and Cameroon, and Macedonia and Mongolia, and so many more.

U.S. wrestler could see gold in London

Do you have any idea how many Olympic wrestling medals have been won by athletes from Finland and Sweden? Take a guess. Six? 10? Try 167.

Bulgaria has won 68 Olympic medals in this sport. Bulgarians don't wait around much to see how their athletes do in Olympic figure-skating or tennis or synchronized swimming. But in wrestling, Bulgarians kick butt.

The Olympic Games aren't just for sports superpowers, not just for Russia and China and the USA, USA! Egypt has won golds in Olympic wrestling. I'll bet an Egyptian today would say, hey, if you want to drop something, drop badminton, drop beach volleyball. Leave wrestling be.

As for these United States of America, well, you can prattle on about Michael Phelps or Bruce Jenner or Muhammad Ali or any other famed Olympian we have produced, but keep in mind this: Our wrestlers have won 50 golds. And 125 medals in all.

That mat meant every bit as much to them as that pool did to Ryan Lochte, as that gym apparatus did to Gabby Douglas, as that hardwood floor did to Kobe Bryant. Wrestlers are human, man. If you pin them, do they not bleed?

I am thinking of scholastic wrestlers all over the globe who starve themselves to make weight, devote countless hours to training for a match, learn every hold and every escape. Most don't dream of selling out Madison Square Garden some day. They do often fantasize about ducking their heads to have a necklace with a medallion draped around their necks.

High school wrestling has been the stuff of literature and cinema, from "The World According to Garp" to "Win Win." It has been a part of many a young man's formative years. It has now become part of a 21st century young woman's world as well.

Without it, we don't have young Jeff Blatnick of Niskayuna, New York, growing up to beat cancer and beat his opponent in the 1984 super-heavyweight gold-medal match, quite a feat for a kid who had his spleen and appendix taken out.

We don't have Steve Fraser, a night earlier, caressing his gold medal with one hand, his pregnant wife with the other, and inviting a reporter (me), "Hey, come on over to the hotel. We'll be partying all night!"

Because there won't be any Olympic wrestlers any more. Not if the IOC goes through with this preposterous proposition.

Can't we talk these people out of it? Grant them some 2020 hindsight? I do think we can convince them, and I'm pretty sure that I know how. Twist their arms.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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