Q and A: Billy Baldwin wonders if there’s a win-win situation for the future of Olympic wrestling

billy-baldwin4Billy Baldwin wrestles with the fact that there may no such win-win scenario in place to keep wrestling from breaking its own fall.

But he doesn’t act if there’s nothing he can do about.

The No. 3 brother in the Baldwin thespian franchise – behind Alec and Daniel, and ahead of Stephen – has rallied his Hollywood pals to the plight of the sport as the International Olympic Committee considers all kinds of factors as to whether it has a future past the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

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Many will hang out with Baldwin at today’s “United 4 Wrestling” event at the L.A. Sports Arena, where the U.S. national wrestling squad’s biggest names grapples with opponents from Russia and Canada, trying to stay positive after the Iranian team decided to go home early for a variety of reasons.

Baldwin, a high school and Division III college wrestler, explains better why he thinks his words and actions can be of some help:

Q: Ice cream needs to be refrigerated, screw drivers need to be straight-edge and Phillips head, the tires on your car need to be properly inflated, and wrestling needs to remain an Olympic sport. Why is that so hard to understand? And do you get tired of hearing that question all the time?
A: Yes, and it’s a shame. I probably know more than most about the intricacies and complexities of how the IOC came to its decision. But I must say, not only because our fate lies in the hands of the IOC and even if it’s back on the program for 2020 and beyond, I have to lay a lot of the blame at the feet of the failed leadership of FILA (the sports’ governing body). Maybe that’s not being politically correct, but based on the information I have, they’ve been told for years that changes were needed, but I’m not sure if it was ego or ‘We’re wrestling, we’re beyond reproach.’ The smarter move for the IOC would have been to force a change in the leadership rather than threaten to drop the sport. That put us politically in a position that’s hard to overcome. We all need to be united and feel good about changes that have been made.

Q: So what changes have to be made in wrestling, if you were forced to do so? Scoring? Weight classes? Tighter uniforms?
A:
I wouldn’t change a thing, but there is a reality that dictates how a sport has to adapt and evolve and quite frankly, one of them that the IOC is concerned about is the funding. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if the IOC is providing 70 percent and the other 30 is coming from private donations and sponsors, we may need to reverse that and ingratiate the IOC. The demographics of the TV viewing audience for the Olympics is probably 30 and older, so the way the IOC has always addressed that is trying to bring in Shawn White and his halfpipe to make things hip and cool and bring down the demographic so advertisers appeal to people who are spending their money, not those in their 50s or 60s. That doesn’t mean you bring in other sports at the expense of the oldest and greatest in Olympic history, but if wrestling has to make more adaptations for the betterment of TV and profitability of the IOC, it’s not like we have to a Lingerie Bowl of Wrestling with girls running around with a Victoria Secret logo on the mat. But . . . having said that, it make may things more interesting, eh? Like taking the women who are in boxing with the spandex shorts and sports bras. I know the men’s singlet is iconic to the sport. The bottom line is making the competition easier to understand, to draw more eyes and that’ll take care of profitability and everything else.

Q: Uniform enhancement seems to have worked for beach volleyball getting a foothold in the Olympic movement, right?
A: I see Misty May Treanor running on the beach near my house in Santa Barbara all the time. That’s become a core sport for NBC and the IOC. But now they’re telling us sports have to be kept or added at the exclusion of wrestling, and that’s the problem. We don’t want to see any of them go away. The IOC seems fixated on keeping the athlete total to 10,500, because having 20,000 is just too expensive to house and feed. Maybe we need more wiggle room here. Look at how college football and basketball carry an athletic department’s financial budget to keep sports like lacrosse and tennis and wrestling alive. It’s like how the Yankees and George Steinbrenner paid all that luxury tax so that the Royals and Twins could stay alive. It should never be that if you can’t make X-millions of dollars, you shouldn’t be in the program.

Q: Does the Iranian team backing out of this L.A. meet set things back?
A:
The meet we had in New York was fantastic competition, but for whatever reason they give, they decided not to follow through and honor their obligation to come to the West Coast. We could do something looking forward with them again if we can iron out the details in the next six months. As great as New York was (last Wednesday), with just 1,000 people there, we’re frustrated and disappointed that all the native Iranians in America can’t come out and make noise. We did all we could to keep them here behind the scenes, talking to the head of their federation and the Iran ambassador but it was not to be, so we’ll improvise.

Q: The way the U.S., Iran and Russia have been able to interact in the wrestling community and make the sport important, how does that make you feel?
A:
Wrestling has its problems and issues, but look how quickly we got Russia and Iran on the same page with a united front with a noble goal. That’s something that everyone from Kennedy to Obama has failed to do. Beyond the politics and rhetoric about using sports to bring nations together, we should also be celebrating how it’s not just wrestling, it’s the people who are great. We have so much more in common than we realize. You see how Iranian fans cheer for their team and how much pride they have in it. That’s great for me to watch. It’s human beings and we all overlap. If you can stop listening to all the stuff said on Fox or CNN and not get caught up in this Darth Vader attitude, you’ll see there’s nothing further from the truth.

Q: You had a wrestling career at Massapequa, N.Y., then for two years at Binghamton University. Did you and your brothers end up wrestling each other a lot around the house growing up?
A: We had typical rowdy, rambunctious, Irish-Catholic hooliganism. A lot of roughhousing. I probably had four concussions and a fractured chin before I was 8 years old just from Daniel throwing me off the roof of our house. There was all sorts of nonsense. Head-on collisions with bikes. Throwing baseball bats. You wonder why we went into show business instead of investment banking. When I was in the ninth grade, I was a lightweight, going at 112 pounds, and Daniel (three years older) was a heavyweight at 215, occasionally going to super heavyweight if they needed him to. He was fairly agile, and as a smaller brother, it would be like planes flying around King Kong, just swatting me away.

Q: Many Californians may not remember but some of the true legendary surfers were also outstanding high school wrestlers, because it had the same elements of keeping a low center of gravity, core balance and foot coordination.
A:
And one of the really beneficial things you learn in wrestling and surfing is how to land. When you wipe out on a surfboard, you’re getting thrown. I’m trying to tell my 11 year old skateboarder son how you have to be careful not to fall on your hand or wrist, or else you break that and you can’t shoot baskets for six months. I learned, especially from the Greco-Roman style wrestling, how to get thrown – not that it was my favorite thing to do, but you do get your pilot’s license in that discipline.

Q: Does California have any real impact in the U.S. wrestling world?
A:
When I was in New York and we’d go to Iowa for national competitions, there were teams from Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Minnesota – just a handful of states. California had a team and occasion had individuals who performed well, but the states much smaller would destroy those guys. It’s probably a shame that the best California wrestlers would go to Penn State or Cornell because we’ve lost so many great programs at Fresno and Fullerton and UC Davis. We have to keep what we have in Bakersfield. If it loses its team, or Poly, it would be devastating. It’s just a tragedy to see the way the economy has gone in California and how programs suffer for it. Imagine if the state could just match funds that alumni put up to keep them alive.

Q: Plus, it’s probably a sport with the coolest shoes.
A:
I worked for a company in the 10th grade, when I was 14, in a warehouse that sold the best shoes, and the mats and universal gyms. We’d fill order and slap tape around ‘em and throw them on the forklifts. Asics makes a beautiful shoe, but they also do great running shoes now too. When I was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, I wore a tux along with my wrestling shoes.

Q: Wrestling and Hollywood have had a decent relationship as far as movies go. A new project coming out soon has Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher,” playing former gold-medalist David Schultz who ended up being killed by a member of the Du Pont family (played by Steve Carrell). What’s your favorite wrestling movie?
A: “Win, Win” (2001 with Paul Giamatti) was terrific. “Vision Quest” (1985 with Matthew Modine). There’s plenty of room for more of them. Jeff Blatnic’s story needs to be told – hit with Hodgkin’s and losing 100 pounds and coming back to win gold in 1984. John Irving (the best-selling author and former college wrestler) has a screenplay about Dan Gable’s life called “Diane’s Room,” which is a great story about his sister’s murder in Iowa in the late 1950s changed his life, making him feel responsible and someone never good enough to win his father’s love. Rulon Gardner’s life would make a great script. The Cael Sanderson story would be a great (ESPN) “30 for 30” documentary – a 159-0 record in college. But Hollywood looks for all kinds of other angles when making a movie. It just has to be the right story.

Q: Could an openly gay athlete at this point in time do anything to help the Olympic wrestling movement? If you’re looking for anything that brings positive publicity . . .
A:
I can only speak for myself, when I wrestled in high school and college, I probably did compete against several who were gay, just based on the percentages. I admire and respect not only the guts it took someone like Jason Collins in the way he did, getting support from Martina (Navratilova) and Kobe (Bryant). There’s been a major shift in the LGBT community.  As for wrestlers’ acceptance . . . I would have no problem with it. In fact it would probably be a real change in attitude if it happened. I always heard from those ignorant people who thought, why would you want to compete in a sport with all those hairy, sweaty guys. It’s a ‘gay’ sport. Well, I’d like to show you how ‘gay’ it is. Let me take you to that patch of grass over there and I’ll be your flight instructor.

== More on the subject:
= Watch this Jay Mohr rant on why wrestling should remain relevant in today’s sporting world.
== The website KeepOlympicWrestling.com

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