Grapple with this scenario: The sport of wrestling has become such an anachronistic, under-funded and stagnant exercise that the International Olympic Committee has put it on notice — be relevant or else you’ll be voted out as soon as the 2020 Summer Games.
Contrast that to the scene embraced at the Harvard-Westlake School’s historic Hamilton Gym late this afternoon: A few dozen junior high and high school wrestlers, their parents and coaches and other curiosity seekers patiently waited – you know how traffic can be — just to watch the U.S. national wrestling team conduct a two-hour workout on their own “H-W” matted floor laid across the old basketball court.
A seven-man U.S. contingent, in New York a couple days earlier competing in a televised international match against Iran and Russia, continues on a “Save Our Sport” agenda with another exhibition planned for 2 p.m. at the L.A. Sports Arena on Sunday afternoon.
The only noticeable and controversial hitch to this one – the Iranian team was unexpectedly called back home by its government late Thursday, potentially derailing the Sunday event. Organizers scrambled to talk the Russian team into changing its plans and come West, as well as recruit some key members of the Canadian national team to join in and rescue it from another public relations nightmare.
Things can get messy when sports and politics intersect, but they can also motivate to join arms, knees and headlocks into forming a coalition that speaks toward doing more for the greater good as far as all athletes are concerned.
“We’ll adjust fine to the circumstances and keep our focus on the goal of making wrestling an important event on American soil,” said U.S. national coach Zeke Jones, who arranged for the team to shuttle over to the Studio City school from their hotel in El Segundo based on his longtime relationship with Harvard-Westlake coach Gary Bairos.“We know California has a great wrestling base – the largest membership in USA Wrestling – and there seems to be a lot of excitement about this event with everything else going on.”
Bairos’ Junkyard Dogs Wrestling Club, based on campus, had all its members wearing black T-shirts that read “Save Olympic Wrestling 2002” on the back. They gave the U.S. squad a round of applause once it entered the gym after an arduous trip up the 101 Freeway, angled for photos and were entertained as some U.S. team members worked up a sweat with a full court pick-up game of basketball – using a volleyball and not dribbling.
It was quite impressive to see how some players went all-out for loose balls on the ground after battling for a rebound.
“You’d be amazed how connected the wrestling world can be and how well the athletes get along, even though it’s so global,” said Bairos, an actor/screenwriter and former Arizona State teammate of Jones in the 1980s. He also is a director/producer of a documentary about his club that he has finished and will distribute soon as a fundraiser for the wrestling movement.
Maybe not so amazing is how Hollywood will jump into a noble political cause as well when it can.
Actor Billy Baldwin, a former high school and college wrestler in New York, has been leading a vocal charge to reshaping the perception of the sport, getting involved in organizing the latest U.S.-Iran-Russia three-city exhibitions. He was also on a conference call late Thursday helping recruit replacement wrestlers for the Sunday event.
During an NBC Sports Network telecast of the U.S.-Iran meet on Wednesday from Grand Central Station, frequent commercials ran with such spokesmen as Mark Spitz, Janet Evans, Nadia Comaneci and Tommy Lasorda telling viewers to visit the website KeepOlympicWrestling.com and “make your voices heard.”
Those scheduled to attend Sunday’s “United 4 Wrestling” meet for a red-carpet entrance include Matthew Modine (who starred in the wrestling-themed movie “Vision Quest”), Jay Mohr, Mario Lopez, Tom Arnold and Nate Parker. Other stars in the wrestling world such as Bruce Baumgartner, Dan Gable, Henry Cejudo, Chael Sonnen and Randy Couture are also there to create more buzz.
If only it were that simple.
Last February, when the IOC recommended that wrestling be excluded from the 25-sport core competition starting in 2020, the shakedown was felt deep to the core. Leadership shifted, new people were put into place, and the IOC board decided that during its May 29-31 meeting in Russia, it would listen again to petitions to keep three sports from a field that included wrestling, baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wake board and wushu (a Chinese martial arts). A final decision would be made in September.
A sport that has been part of the ancient Olympics in Rome as well as almost every modern Olympics since it came back in 1896, wrestling die-hards feel as if they’ve been body-slammed into making changes in anything from private fund-raising to how matches are scored, in hopes that a younger generation will remain engaged.
“I’m not sure how this will all turnout, but I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Jordan Burroughs, a U.S. gold-medalist from the 2012 London Games and one of America’s greatest spokesmen for the sport as well as silver medalist Coleman Scott and recent four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dale.
“My expectations are for the IOC to keep wresting and I think we have the right people in the right places,” Burroughs said. “Now it’s a matter of gaining as much exposure as we can at this point and trying to become more engrained in the American culture.”
Burroughs called the recent reception for “The Rumble on the Rails” in New York “amazing,” even though the facility could only fit about 1,000 spectators and the Iranian squad defeated the Americans, six matches to one. Burroughs compared the response by the vocal Iranian American spectators as “something we experienced when we competed in Tehran. Their passion is impressive.”
Added Jones: “With the exception of getting our tails kicked by the Iranian team, we did what we intended to do in exposing the full spectacle of the sport and people who watched on TV said it was a really unbelievable.”
Unfortunately, that same exuberance may not be replicated Sunday because of the Iran team’s departure, a decision that still is open to speculation, rumor and perhaps things lost in translation.
Some estimates are that more than one million Iranian-Americans live in the U.S., with half of them in Southern California, based mostly on the Westside and San Fernando Valley. Thousands were expected to fill in the 15,000-seat Sports Arena.
Along with the U.S., Russian and Canadian wrestlers, the program Sunday includes a youth exhibition. Nine-year-old Viviana Garcia of San Fernando is listed as a competitor against Pacoima’s Patricia Arana in the 55-to-60 pound division.
“Sure, it’s a setback (without the Iranian team), but I expect it to still be a great event,” said Burroughs. “The complexion has changed. But the thing I’ve learned is that when the Americans, Iranian and Russians get together as wrestlers, it transcends politics and you find out what kind of people we really have.”