Wrestling with Change

“The idea overall is to renew the program and to keep it relevant and appealing to new audiences.”

These were the words of Mark Adams, chief spokesman for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last week when it was decided that wrestling would no longer be a part of the Olympic Games starting in 2020. Wrestling was one of nine sports contested in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Its formal history dates back to the ancient Olympics in 776 BCE. Some of you may recall stories of Milo of Croton who won five straight Olympic gold medals over a 24-year period before he was beaten in 516 BCE in his attempt to win his sixth.

Because of a decision to add golf and rugby to the Olympics, the IOC Executive Committee met to decide which sport would be dropped. They want to keep the number of sports, now 25, to be no more than 26. More on this later.

The six sports up for elimination were wrestling, taekwondo, modern pentathlon, badminton, table tennis, and field hockey. In the end, the decision came down to wrestling and modern pentathlon. Modern pentathlon dates back to the 1912 Olympic Games. It was created by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement. Modern pentathlon consists of fencing, horse jumping, swimming, running and pistol shooting – a sport developed using the same skills as a 19th century cavalry officer.

The decision was based on a number of factors: worldwide popularity, participation, and television ratings to name a few. This reflects a paradox – wrestling may be underappreciated by casual sports fans and not a television ratings draw, however, it is one of the most beloved sports among athletes around the world. Seventy-one countries had wrestlers compete at the 2012 Games where 29 countries (as small as Estonia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan and as large as India, the United States and Russia) shared the 72 medals awarded. To put in perspective, only 19 different countries won the 102 medals awarded to swimmers.

As a comparison, modern pentathlon had athletes from 26 countries with 11 countries winning medals. Of those 11 countries, six are represented on the 14-person IOC Executive Committee – while wrestling had no medaling countries represented.

Perhaps one side benefit of the IOC’s decision, is that countries where wrestling is popular are uniting together to overturn the decision. Despite political differences, the United States, Cuba (the U.S. team often trains in Havana with the Cuban team) and Iran (which won half its 12 medals last summer in wrestling) are already partnering together (with scores of other countries) in a bid to save the Olympic sport.

Rulon Gardner, Greco-Roman gold medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games said, "The Olympic movement used to be about amateur sports (remember when that was the case). Now they're thinking it's more about the mainstream, it's about the money, the TV appeal. There are golf tournaments every weekend. It doesn't need to be a part of the Olympics."

For former U.S. wrestlers like Dan Gable, Jeff Blatnick (who recently passed away), Kurt Angle, Rulon Gardner, and Cael Sanderson, their Olympic moment was absolutely everything. As one commentator noted, “Olympic wrestling is about something deeper, more soulful and permanent. It is about an athlete you've never heard of who has trained their entire career for one chance to represent their country and to have their accomplishment live forever.”

The sports that will be vying for the last spot in the 2020 Olympics are wrestling (trying to be readmitted), baseball/softball (dropped after the 2008 Games), karate, squash, sports climbing, wakeboarding, and wushu (a Chinese martial art that combines kickboxing and grappling, along with non-combative demonstration techniques of spinning kicks).

Christophe Dubi, director of sport for the IOC, suggested that wrestling could have avoided this fate if it had followed the lead of archery, fencing and modern pentathlon. Dubi said, “Archery changed its scoring system so competitions often come down to a final arrow. Fencing now stages matches under a spotlight. Modern pentathlon has compressed its competition to a single day. To win its way back into the 2020 Games, the wrestling governing body needs to roll up its sleeves and figure out how they can create greater interest from more people."

I believe there are several valuable learning lessons for our Jewish community:

1. The IOC does not just keep adding sports – they make difficult decisions at the same time by eliminating other sports. Although not everyone will be happy with their decision, they recognize that adding more sports will not enhance the Games, nor sustain them. It just takes them further away from their core mission. Our Jewish organizations and institutions should take heed.

2. This weekend is the Oregon State Athletic Association wrestling championships. These boys and girls have been training for years. Many of them will go on to compete in college. And for those that excel – then what? No more dream of being an Olympic champion.

I often think the same for those Jewish youth who have been so active in Jewish youth groups, summer camps, and Hillel on campus. But what happens once they get out of college? What is that next step in Jewish life? Do we have enough accessible opportunities for people to continue their journey at that stage of life?

3. Finally, the IOC continuously reevaluates the Olympic program. It is not static. They understand, just as our Jewish community must, that times change…interests evolve…new ideas are introduced… younger and new audiences need to be reached…and that nothing is “off the table.” Who would have ever thought that one of the original Olympic sports would be removed from the Games?

The IOC was willing to “wrestle with change” – Is our Jewish community? 

Shabbat shalom and chag Purim sameach.


PS  – Mazel tov to Steve “Rosy” Rosenberg, past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, for being honored last evening by the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. Let me just say it was a spirited and successful celebration in honor of a dedicated champion of Jewish Portland.


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