Sicklerville's Jordan Burroughs pushes to save Olympic wrestling

"What will they do next, change the name of the Olympics?" Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said of the IOC's planto drop wrestling starting in 2020. The sport was a staple of the ancient Games.
"What will they do next, change the name of the Olympics?" Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said of the IOC's planto drop wrestling starting in 2020. The sport was a staple of the ancient Games. (   PAT LITTLE / Associated Press)
Posted: March 11, 2013

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Last month, as Jordan Burroughs moved through Tehran's ancient streets en route to the Azadi Sports Complex, he understood better than ever the meaning and power of the Olympic Games.

Traveling from his hotel to the site of the 2013 World Wrestling Championships, the Sicklerville resident saw overwhelming evidence that the wrestling-mad Iranians were just as incensed as Americans by the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop the sport starting in 2020.

"There were a bunch of billboards and signs referring to it," said Burroughs, who added an individual World Cup gold medal there to his 2012 Olympic gold. "They were in both Farsi and English. You could tell that this was an extremely important and emotional issue for them. And at the event, there was an unspoken bond between all the wrestlers. Even though we couldn't speak each other's language, we knew that we all wanted to save Olympic wrestling."

So deeply and thoroughly did February's stunning ruling skewer the sport's international supporters that it instantly created some odd bedfellows, none odder than the troika of Donald Rumsfeld, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Vladimir Putin, all of whom spoke out vehemently against the IOC.

Wrestling, a staple in the ancient Olympics and the Games' modern reincarnation, had its seemingly solid underpinnings rocked when the IOC surprised nearly everyone in mid-February by voting to eliminate the sport.

Suddenly, the American collegians who compete annually at events like the Big Ten championships being held here this weekend, the Iranians and Russians for whom wrestling is a national obsession, and the Bulgarian star who is refusing to eat in protest have a common rallying cry - and a common enemy in the IOC.

"What will they do next, change the name of the Olympics?" said Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, who will try to guide the Nittany Lions to a third straight tournament title here and, later this month, a third straight NCAA crown in Des Moines. "Wrestling goes hand-in-hand with the Olympics. It was a marquee event at the early Games. If they can get rid of it, then what's next?"

Wrestling on the rise

These Big Ten championships, which were expected to draw large crowds to the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall for its Saturday and Sunday sessions, epitomize the problem that now confronts U.S. wrestling.

After decades of contraction caused by the complexities of Title IX, college wrestling has been undergoing a boomlet. According to the Pennsylvania-based National Wrestling Coaches Association, 95 schools have added or reinstituted the sport since 1999.

"College wrestling in the U.S. is getting stronger all the time," said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the NWCA, headquartered in Manheim. "But there's no doubt that a strong Olympic program can make folk-style wrestling [the style practiced in America] even stronger."

If there's no Olympic wrestling, all those college-trained athletes will have nowhere to go, no higher level to dream about. Never able to attract more than a minuscule TV audience, legitimate wrestling does not have any professional leagues.

"What would the NFL be without a Super Bowl?" Burroughs asked. "What about MLB without the World Series? That's what the Olympics is for us. I know how strong the Olympic dream was for me. I can't imagine what it will be like for all those future wrestlers if they don't have that to shoot for."

The hope sustaining Burroughs, Sanderson, and wrestlers in Iran and elsewhere is that between now and September, when the full IOC session will meet to set the final sports agenda for the 2020 Games, the governing body will be persuaded to change its mind.

If not, the 2016 Games in Rio could mark the final appearance of wrestling, which many historians believe to be the world's oldest sport. It's a scenario that many in the insular community believe will never happen.

"Wrestling has had challenges, as have many Olympic sports," said Moyer. "But our community will pull together. There's been an outpouring of support. I can't tell you how many calls I've been getting each day, asking, 'How can I help?' I really feel like everything will be OK."

The deed that caused all this angst was done via secret ballot at a Feb. 12 meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC's 15-member executive board, which had been expected to eliminate the modern pentathlon, an arcane sport with a far smaller worldwide base but with an international federation headed by the son of a former IOC president, voted to cut wrestling.

However, in what amounts to a consolation round, wrestling must now compete with seven other sports in the hopes it will be granted its old slot - the single remaining opening for 2020. The other contenders will be softball/baseball, climbing, karate, kung fu, squash, wakeboarding, and roller sports.

That IOC board will then vote to endorse one of those sports when it meets again in late May in Russia, a wrestling hotbed where pressure to reinstate is expected to be intense. Then, in September, the full IOC will convene in Argentina and make a final decision on the recommendation.

'United as ever'

Whatever political intrigue went into the surprise vote, the episode has managed to do the impossible. Despite its freestyle, folk-style, and Greco-Roman factions; despite its frequent scoring and officiating disputes; despite its failure to appeal to Olympic TV audiences - "It has to be more viewer-friendly," Burroughs said - the wrestling community is now as united as it has ever been.

As a result, Raphael Martinetti, the head of FILA, wrestling's international governing body, was fired for failing to sound any alarms prior to the IOC ruling. He was replaced by interim president Nenad Lalovic of Serbia. Around the globe, politicians such as the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, and the Russian premier, Putin, as well as powerful ex-wrestlers such as Rumsfeld, the former George W. Bush administration secretary of defense, have been decrying the decision.

"Everybody connected with the international movement would agree that in hindsight [the wrestling federation] and the worldwide wrestling community could have done much more, and certainly the leadership change is a reflection of that," Jim Scherr, a former Olympic wrestler and onetime U.S. Olympic Committee CEO, said recently.

Those officials have promised more changes that could simplify the sport's complex scoring system; shorten matches; and, maybe most important in this increasingly technological age, make it a more attractive TV product.

"Obviously, this is a major challenge to our sport," said Scherr. "This won't be easy. Wrestling can remain on the program. But wrestling has to work hard to do so. We're optimistic that the leadership that's been collected on the worldwide level and here in the United States, that we're up to the task."

While advocates in wrestling meccas like Asia and Eastern Europe are an important part of the fight, the most effective war room might turn out to be the Wall Street offices of a financial entrepreneur who once wrestled at Princeton.

"I always say the last person on Earth you want to have [ticked] off at you is a wrestler," said Mike Novogratz, chairman of the Fortress Investments Group and a onetime Princeton grappler.

Almost immediately after the bad news hit, Novogratz solicited the aid of several Wall Street colleagues along with legendary U.S. wrestlers such as Sanderson, Scherr, Dan Gable, and Bruce Baumgartner and set about to raise $3 million and change minds.

"We have a brilliant team of people working on getting wrestling back into the Olympics," said Moyer. "And they're not only brilliant, they're relentless. It's hard to believe they won't be successful. This is a fight that has really galvanized the wrestling community."

Others like Burroughs and Bulgarian two-time Olympic champ Armen Nazaryan are working just as hard on an individual basis.

Since returning from Iran, where he won all five matches in winning his weight class, Burroughs has undertaken a nonstop media blitz, pleading for wrestling's salvation with whoever will listen.

"I don't know if I'm important enough to make an adequate change of heart in the IOC," Burroughs said. "But just by continuing to bring notoriety to our sport, by getting exposure, maybe I'll help keep wrestling in the Olympics."

Noble as that effort might be, it pales in comparison with Nazaryan's gesture. He is in the midst of a hunger strike.

"[He is protesting] the sport being dumped from the 2020 Olympics," according to a statement from his country's wrestling federation. "He will not eat until the start of the European Championship on March 22 in Tbilisi, Georgia . . . and will only take juices."

Meanwhile, wrestling goes through its paces, but with the black cloud always hovering. At the Big Ten championships here Saturday, the loudest ovation came when the public-address announcer asked the crowd to make some noise if it wanted to see the sport back in the Olympics.

The roar shook the mushroom-shaped arena.

"Wrestling," Sanderson said, "belongs in the Olympics."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at Follow on Twitter @philafitz.

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