Bernard, Johnson react to potential removal of wrestling from Olympics
On Tuesday, the sports world was blindsided by the news that the International Olympic Committee had recommended removing wrestling from the Summer Olympics beginning with the 2020 games.
New Ulm native Ali Bernard, who competed in women’s freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics in London, was as shocked as anyone when she heard the news.
“[Tuesday] morning I found out just like everyone else,” Bernard said. “No one in USA Wrestling knew about it either, so it was kind of a shock. You wake up and on the news it says that it’s not going to be an Olympic sport in 2020. Knowing that I’m not going to be wrestling in 2020, I still look at it as wrestling is a huge part of my life, and a huge part of a lot of people’s lives. Anyone that’s been in wrestling just felt sad [Tuesday] and just worried about the sport.”
Included in the ranks of those worried for the sport is Sibley East head wrestling coach Chad Johnson, who also coordinates Team Minnesota’s participation at high school nationals and holds the position of Membership Chair for the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association. Johnson, like most people in the sport, hadn’t even realized that Olympic wrestling was in danger of being dropped.
“It’s very disappointing,” Johnson said. “I think the main thing is no one really thought wrestling was one of the sports on the chopping block. I don’t think we had very good representation probably at the IOC for that, and I think now there will be a pretty big push.”
Since Tuesday’s announcement came as such a surprise, the wrestling community has had to scramble to come together and formally work out a strategy to fight the IOC’s recommendation. Bernard mentioned that USA Wrestling had immediately sprung into action on Tuesday and had already contacted its members to address the matter.
“They plan to fight it, we’re not going to take this laying down as a wrestling community,” Bernard said. “There are petitions being signed, there’s a lot going on. USA Wrestling is out there to fight for it and all the wrestlers are coming together across the nation. It’s such a versatile sport, I don’t know if the Olympic Committee realized what they’re getting into when they cut wrestling… It’s kind of been an uproar, and I just don’t think the Olympic Committee felt that was going to happen like that.”
Johnson said that by the time he signed an online petition on Wednesday, there were already approximately 2.5 million other names on the list.
Though wrestling still has a chance of avoiding elimination from Olympic competition, Bernard knows that a failure to reverse the IOC’s decision would have dire consequences for the sport – especially for women’s wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling.
“This is going to possibly devastate the sport, the bounce-back from it is going to be difficult,” Bernard said. “I know for women’s wrestling and for Greco-Roman it would be devastating. Women’s wrestling is starting kind of at the college level, and Greco-Roman’s not in college at all. There’s not a lot of places to go for those sports. I guess freestyle’s not in college either, the only thing you can do is folkstyle. It would make a huge impact on wrestling and it would be really hard I feel to bounce back, that’s why I guess we’re hoping to fight it.”
Though removing wrestling from the Olympics would have a most notable effect at the top ranks of the sport, the reverberations would reach all the way down to the college and high school levels, where Johnson knows plenty of wrestlers that have goals of wrestling in the Olympics one day.
“I have a young kid here that has goals of possibly wrestling in the Olympics one day, and Kevin Steinhaus and Tony Nelson that are wrestling at the [University of Minnesota] right now that have wrestled on our national team, I know they have aspirations of being in the Olympics one day,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of the thing that everybody here in our sport works for. They work for the Olympics – a lot of other sports work to be a professional athlete, in ours we work to be an Olympian… It’s unfortunate that they’ve gone and they’ve worked for 10, 12 years of their life to be an Olympian, and now all of a sudden it might be taken out from underneath them. That’s just really not fair.”
Wrestling will now be one of eight sports vying for one remaining spot in the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in either Istanbul, Tokyo or Madrid. The other sports aiming for inclusion are a joint bid from baseball and softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu.
Although the IOC routinely adds sports and eliminates others (baseball and softball were each eliminated after the 2008 Olympics and golf and rugby will be added in 2016), the idea that a sport like wrestling would be cut is an absurd concept to many.
Wrestling has been contested in every Olympics since the modern Olympics began in 1896 and was a foundation sport in the Ancient Olympics dating back to 776 BC.
“I feel that it would just lose some of its rich history, the Olympics,” Bernard said. “It goes back so long ago, and the history behind the Olympics is just so rich. To get rid of something that’s been there from the beginning, it’s like losing the pyramids. It’s drastic, and to do it like that without informing anyone and allowing it to fight back before they come up with these ideas, it’s hard. It’s hard to know if we’re going to be able to come back from it.”
Bernard voiced her skepticism about the IOC’s policy of eliminating sports in the first place, which is a viewpoint that is also firmly held by Johnson.
“I don’t know why you would ever eliminate another sport, I think they all have their own basis for why they should be there, and to change those things up, that just doesn’t seem as educated a decision to me,” Johnson said. “If we really believe golf is a great sport, a world-wide sport, then add it, instead of having 26 Olympic sports, make it 28… If a sport is worthy, then they’re worthy, if they’re not, then they’re not. If wushu takes off, make it an Olympic sport, if it doesn’t, then don’t have it. I just don’t understand the rationale to get rid of a sport that is so well accepted.”
In addition to its rich Olympic heritage, Bernard mentioned a number of reasons that wrestling should be kept as an Olympic sport.
She said that it is not only a sport that requires far more athleticism that some other Olympic sports, but it also is a low-cost sport compared to other Olympic sports, has a high participation rate among all the Olympic nations and also is a sport that is accessible to people regardless of their body size or gender.
“It’s a sport that anyone can be in, it doesn’t matter what your weight class is,” Bernard said. “You have a little 100-pound kid or you have a 200-pound kid, they can all wrestle. Boys, girls, across the country, across the world.”
In Bernard’s opinion, the argument against wrestling comes mainly from its perceived lack of ability to create money by drawing a large viewing audience.
“I feel that’s part of the problem of why they cut it, they’re saying it’s not a spectator sport,” Bernard said. “They actually changed the rules for freestyle wrestling probably like six years ago, trying to make it more spectator-friendly to keep it in the Olympics. To get women’s wrestling in, they needed to draw spectators, they felt. Then they changed the rules to make it more action-packed, to make it that you need to score more often.”
Johnson points out that removing wrestling from the Olympics would have a particularly harsh effect on Team USA, “because it’s something that we generally excel at, at least two or three medalists every single year, and you can’t say that about every sport.”
It would have an even harsher effect of nations that receive almost all of their Olympic medals in the sport, with Bernard naming Iran as a prime example.
Unfortunately for wrestling, one of the areas of the world in which it is least popular is western Europe, which is the geographical region with the most influence behind the IOC’s decision-making process. Although the lack of respect for wrestling on the international level was highlighted by the IOC’s decision to remove it from the Olympics, Johnson points to a lack of appreciation for the sport on the local level as also being a contributing factor to allowing it to enter its current precarious situation.
“As far as I’m concerned, us Minnesota people are pretty fortunate – we have Ali Bernard, Jake Deitchler, Chas Betts, Jake Clark and Brandon Poulson, five Minnesotans that were Olympians in the past three or four Olympics, and most people don’t even know them,” Johnson said. “I guarantee they would know if we had a hockey or basketball player. I think that’s kind of the nature of our sport, it isn’t as high profile, and we probably don’t do maybe a good enough job of making sure it’s recognized.”
One of the main factors that keeps wrestling thriving in places such as Minnesota is the allure of the Olympic dream, with Bernard a prime example of what is possible when a wrestler chooses to follow that dream. In Bernard’s opinion, having young people lose that Olympic dream would be the true tragedy if the IOC’s decision isn’t reversed.
“To have that goal and just to have it out there, even if you never reach it, it’s great for kids to be motivated and stay active in the sport,” Bernard said. “Now it’s in jeopardy, and it’s sad.”