The “Olympic sports” community is roughly defined, but very close-knit. When Usain Bolt becomes the fastest man ever on land, swim fans feel a special connection, like they “get it.” They get the Olympic movement, the battle for attention in a market ripe with athletes making 10-million dollars a year complaining about having to practice. These so-called “Olympic sports,” united by the fact that the Olympics are their pinnacle, have a camaraderie and a brotherhood.
That’s why it was no surprise when the swimming community lashed out after their brothers-in-arms, Olympic wrestling, was voted out of the 2020 Olympics. This was a shot at the Olympic movement – a movement carried and carefully guarded by the athletes and their fans who are dedicated to these sports every day of every year, not by the IOC as they might like you to believe.
It was no surprise, despite this being tangentially a positive for swimming. Swimming is a cash cow of the Olympics, and the IOC has clearly drawn their line in the sand: the games are now about lining the pockets of organizers and their sponsors, and neither more or less than that. Swimming isn’t going anywhere, and in fact will continue to be pushed and prodded into the spotlight.
That doesn’t mean this feels right. Each of the 26 Olympic sports were on the chopping block. The modern pentathlon, which includes among its five events a 200 meter swim, was widely speculated to be the one to go. It was spared, likely because the event requires little cost from the IOC as they can use down-hours at the Olympic pools and other facilities.
Instead, we lost wrestling (which, in fairness, could be brought back as it now competes against previous cut sports like baseball and softball for a spot back in the 2020 schedule, though I wouldn’t hold your breath).
The IOC kept referring to the need to “streamline” the games. We’ve all heard complaints about certain sports awarding too many medals, but I personally have never heard anybody say “hey, we’ve got too many great Olympic moments, let’s cut out entire sports.”
Statement from the USOC Executive Board:
“We knew that today would be a tough day for American athletes competing in whatever sport was identified by the IOC Executive Board. Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced. It is important to remember that today’s action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world. In the meantime, we will fully support USA Wrestling and its athletes.”
Maybe we’re too out of the loop, and there’s some pressure to cut back on the amount of inspiration people draw from the games. At least until Kleenex becomes an official sponsor of Olympic tears of joy and sorrow.
You may have never watched Olympic wrestling, but I bet you know the names. Rulon Gardner, the American who ended the 13-year, undefeated run of Russian juggernaut Aleksandr Karelin in 2000. The American and the Iranian exchanging a heartfelt embrace on the Olympic podium, even while their countries are in the middle of a spitting-contest.
Now, we’re losing sports where this is the absolute top-of-the-mountain for hundreds-upon-thousands of fans and participants. Meanwhile, we’re adding golf. Golf is a fine game in itself, a historic game. If we’re realistic, though, the Olympic golf gold medal will be lucky to have a 5th-place position among the biggest annual golf tournaments. Some of the sports biggest names have already hemmed and hawed over whether they’ll participate in Rio when it comes on board, and that will continue until the Olympics comes anywhere near matching the million-dollar-plus purse that will be handed out at whatever nameless tournament runs the same weekend (the PGA hands out nearly $300 million in prize money each season alone).
Nevermind that these golfers have huge sponsorship agreements, and their brands won’t be able to use them in their normal run of ads for the lead-in to the Olympics, because of the brilliant rule 45.
Golf does come with deep pockets. Deep pockets from equipment manufacturers and the luxury brands that want to tap into the pockets of the prestige-seeking upper crust of the world. Deep pockets that won’t even notice the hands of the IOC dipping in.
It will take the place of wrestling: one of the original Olympic sports. Not just 1896 original. We’re talking about 776 BC original, before anyone could tell you that you can’t use the word “Olympic.” There are few sports that can compete with wrestling in terms of being the definition of an Olympic sport. Maybe the marathon. Pretty much anything track & field. And wrestling. Those are the Olympic sports, of all-time, forever.
Wrestling has given itself over to the Olympic movement and its rapid and sometimes painful commercialization. Now, the IOC has betrayed it. They’ve told wrestlers that they weren’t “good enough,” without much real explanation. It must be painful to know that you’re not good enough, and not be told why.
When baseball was cut, everyone got it. The pros wouldn’t come play, so the tournament was largely meaningless. Dragging softball down with them hurt. Everyone accepts basketball in the Games, albeit not a true “Olympic sport,” because the top athletes show up, they play hard, they go to swimming, they go to wrestling, and they engage themselves in the Olympic movement.
This is big. This is game-changing. For some, this is game-over.