Wrestling on the mat, but don't count it out yet

Rulon Gardner's stunning victory in the 2000 Olympics remains one of the greatest moments in U.S. wrestling history.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Rulon Gardner's stunning victory in the 2000 Olympics remains one of the greatest moments in U.S. wrestling history.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: February 18, 2013

THE NFL is canceling the Super Bowl in 2014 in favor of competitive croquet, and the league's best teams will have to settle for conference championships instead. You're laughing, but please try to imagine it.

Understand what wrestlers from Iowa to Azerbaijan are going through right now: the shock, disbelief, anger, because their Super Bowl, the Summer Olympic Games, is in jeopardy.

The International Olympic Committee, the overlords of the games, voted to recommend that freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling - arguably the world's oldest and purest form of sport - be dropped from the 2020 Olympics for reasons that so far appear unclear.

My initial reaction was bitterness, and I cracked jokes with other wrestlers about the pentathlon, wakeboarding and squash, and canoe races and jumping horses. I've calmed down since Wednesday, and I'm taking the high road now, because it's unfair to compare wrestling to any other competition or belittle anyone else's passion.

Wrestling made me better than that.

The sport changed my life, so, yes, I am biased. I spent hours running through a cemetery one February night almost 20 years ago, listening to metal on my Walkman, drilling a mantra into my head.

"I will not lose."

The next day, in the consolation match of a small district high-school tournament, I hit a desperate move with little time left, and it worked. That was my Olympics.

But what if I had arrived at districts that morning and the doors were closed, the lights off, the mats rolled up and put away? That's what every wrestler competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman is being told now about his future, about his chance to claim wrestling's top prize: a gold medal.

I help coach the local youth program in which both my sons wrestle. Every weekend, from December to March, I'm in gymnasiums shouting instructions to wrestlers from the edge of the mat. It's doubtful those kids will ever make an Olympic team, but if they dream about it, they don't have to dream too far.

Jordan Burroughs was a gold medalist from last summer's London Games. Burroughs wrestled in those same gyms where my sons compete and won the 2006 state title at 135 pounds for Winslow Township High School, the next town over. Burroughs, who went on to star at Nebraska, visited our practice once after winning his second NCAA title, and our wrestlers fawned all over him, the same way I idolized 1972 gold-medalist Dan Gable when I met him in Iowa.

I realize that 99 percent of Philadelphians wouldn't recognize Burroughs or Gable if they did cartwheels down Broad Street in their singlets. Wrestlers are superstars in Russia and Iran, but the sport, while growing, will never be fully embraced by masses here in the United States.

I'm OK with that.

Wrestling's a small fraternity. It's likely that more people have quit wrestling than any other sport in the world. There are hundreds of moves to master to exploit an opponent's weakness and, on the mat, there's no place hide to your own.

The IOC has waffled a little in light of all the international outrage that came with its vote in Switzerland. It says a final decision won't be made until September in Buenos Aires. But even if the decision is reversed and wrestling is back in 2020, the aftertaste of that initial threat will stay with wrestlers for years to come.

Maybe we're naïve, holed up in our steamy practice rooms or running the streets with our headphones turned up too high to imagine that things like popularity, politics and ratings could ever take down a sport that has always been there.

A well-trained wrestler has a shot against his equal, but wrestlers don't train to beat ratings, and they shouldn't have to.

Email: narkj@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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