What Wrestling Means to the World
Wrestling is an inextricable aspect from the human experience. We are born a ball of fleshy mush and spend much of the next 80 years sharpening our mental and physical capabilities. That growth never comes easy. We struggle with the multiplication table, foreign languages and improving our health. There's a consistent tug between what is capable and what is possible and until we reach our potential we are left to labor for our wants and needs.
The sport of wrestling is the most direct representation of that most human struggle.
The members of the IOC [International Olympic Committee] committee that voted to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Olympics aren't your typical citizens of the world. Most are Western European pseudo-diplomats with glimmers of grandeur and the shine of champagne-soaked crystal blinding them to the upside of struggle. To them wrestling is violence and barbarism, a sport rendered useless by the comforts of modernity. Many on the committee were coddled inside a womb of opportunity. They've progressed through nepotism, manipulation and bribery to become cake eaters with their hands on the controls of the world's most important sporting event.
What the cake eaters can't purchase is the experience of knowing wrestling's worldwide appeal and that the sport's importance lays beyond their contrived metrics of viewership and revenue. Wrestling is more than a set of numbers. It can help influence the social balance of Third World countries, promote equal rights for women, and give ethnic minorities a chance to receive the political patronage necessary for advancement.
Though soccer is currently more popular, wrestling is the most widely participated sport in the history of the world. Despite what anyone writes there is no birthdate for wrestling, no single moment when one society can claim to have created the sport or have delivered it to another country. Adventurers for the National Geographic Society spent the majority of the 19th century reporting back on societies previously unknown to the world. Their journals are brimming with African, Amazonian and island cultures that celebrated wrestling and used it as a form of conflict resolution, social pruning and celebrations of strength and courage. Find a map, throw a dart and you'll hit a country, tribe, or ethnic group with its own wrestling style. Wrestling has been discovered on all seven continents.
Culture to culture wrestling has survived dictatorship, plague, and the invasion of foreign armies. The Turkish Oil wrestling festival of Kirkipinar is the longest consecutively held athletic event in recorded human history, with 667 consecutive contests. But now the sport of wrestling might have an expiration date thanks to the fish-handed, bribe-taking pseudo-intellectuals and their ilk that would rather preserve a contrived competition of Lords and Barons than the first sport of mankind.
Though it's Olympic Wrestling that stands to lose its competition, the ripples will potentially decimate what remains of the world's traditional wrestling styles. Countries and cultures with powerful wrestling traditions use those traditions as concentrated examples of their culture's values, tastes, religious preferences and a multitude of other important cultural expressions. Losing the Olympics threatens these traditions by passing along the message that the world is in favor of blanching cultures in favor of modernity's leisure activities. We've seen modern wants trump societal needs in America. Title IX might have been the legislative right hook that staggered the wrestling community, but it's a culture feverish for spectacle over substance and grandeur that has allowed wrestling, a sport seen as barbaric and violent, to be almost knocked out in favor of football, a sport actually barbaric and violent.
Traditional wrestling isn't well known to Americans, making it difficult to understand and support. Until two years ago it was a mystery to me as well. My perspective changed in 2010 when I traveled to a village in Northern Vietnam and discovered a vibrant wrestling tradition that took place in the dirt. The next year I spent several months in China and Mongolia and was fortunate to practice and enter traditional tournaments. Wrestling has always been my passion as a competitor, but with traditional wrestling I soon became a conservationist and experiential journalist.
To help document my experiences I established the website WrestlingRoots.org. Within weeks I was receiving emails from around the world, each with a passionate explanation of their culture's traditional style. I fell deeper into study and eventually established an emerging non-profit organization called The Wrestling Roots Foundation (WRF). There's no corporation behind the project (we're still waiting on our NFP status), but with my co-executive director Mark Lovejoy we actively share our information about traditional wrestling across the website, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The WRF's mission statement is "To document and promote traditional wrestling styles from around the world."
I learned of the IOC's decision to drop wrestling on the day I left India after a week of training, studying and reporting about traditional kushti wrestling. I'll be writing articles for several outlets about my time at various events, but balanced against the IOC's decision, my time in India clarified the largest danger behind the elimination of wrestling on the international stage. Cancelling the Olympics for wrestlers is pulling a thread that will unravel more than just the dreams of Olympic-level wrestlers, or eliminating the history of these historically relevant wrestling styles, it will also cause permanent damage to the equality campaigns of disenfranchised peoples all around the world.
For women in Mongolia, wrestling has been a method for capturing social equality. While in the country I visited Tsetserleg, the capital city of Arhangai, a state in the center of the country. Arhangai is the countryside home to The Citadel wrestler Turtogtokh and he'd invited me to join him in competing at a local summer wrestling tournament called Naadam. On arrival I was sent to the sports hall to ask for permission to enter. Inside the building photographs of the areas famous wrestlers hung, some wearing traditional Mongolian wrestling outfits belying their success in the fields, while former Olympians were in singlets. The most impressive boasting was a 20-foot banner hanging on the walls outside complex with a large photograph of Battsetseg a 2010 World champion from Tsetserleg. Battsetseg is a woman. She later won bronze at the 2012 Olympics.
Mongolia is still learning how to deal with women in a modern society. Women are the majority of the modern workforce and deal with a male population that is estimated to be hampered by a rate of alcoholism nearing 40 percent. The females run businesses and the household, but earning respect in the media and among the men has always been difficult. The success of Battsetseg and other women wrestlers gives the girls of the country something to admire and becomes a point of pride among women. Men also seem to think that their accomplishments are noteworthy. In Mongolia Olympic medals matter. Wrestling is at the center of their sporting culture, and losing the chance to impress with their on-mat heroics eliminates a powerful vehicle for equality.
India is still reeling from the brutal rape and murder of "Damini" on a Delhi bus earlier this year. Women are largely treated poorly, with more than 100k dowry murders committed every year with few, if any, prosecuted. Men's wrestling has recently earned accolades through the accomplishments of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt and after the bus incident both acted quickly to provide more funding to women's wrestling teams to help promote the idea of equality for women in India. The response has been tremendous. Women wrestlers are cutting their hair shorter and wearing western outfits. They swagger like the men and though they've yet to place at the Olympics, success is/was only a matter of time. In a country starved for Olympic medals tens of thousands of women would have earned the respect of their male counterparts by just putting forth the effort on behalf of their countrymen.
Ethnic tensions are also being solved through wrestling. After the split from Sudan, the tribes of South Sudan fell into score settling and in-fighting that looked to hamper the development of the new nation. Cattle rustling, rape and murder were common occurrences between several tribes. Wrestling is the national sport of South Sudan so the WRF recently submitted a proposal for funding that would assist the financial needs of the South Sudanese Wrestling League in their bid to host an annual wrestling tournament aimed at peace. The SSWL had previously held a tournament and invited warring tribes to participate in a traditional Sudanese-style wrestling tournament. Because of the distances many had to travel that year to compete, warring tribes were forced to join camps. Women who'd lost their husbands to the fighting were now cooking meals to the men who very well may have been responsible. In the year following that event the crime rate between the tribes was reduced to zero. Not only is there no more crime between the tribes, the star wrestlers have even been asked to visit other tribes to show their moves and train.
Olympic wrestling, traditional wrestling, or head locking your cousin at Thanksgiving, wrestling connects people through physical forms of communication, and when the spoken word is impossible or inadequate. The wrestling community in America is criticized for being disparate and regionalized in times of crisis, but at the individual level we consistently behave as a brotherhood (Ever given the underhook-to-Russian welcoming to an old wrestler buddy?). That same level of camaraderie extends to the international scene. The Olympics are the world's biggest stage for cross-cultural communication, and nothing is more personal and meaningful than wrestling. Swimming and running are both sports with which humans participate, but their individual sports without interaction.
Wrestling is the world's purest social sport. Sharing sweat and blood is the quickest passageway to mutual respect. I've seen it in every country I've visited. The hosts invariably make me the guest of honor at tournaments and though each time I'm expecting to be booed for winning or laughed at for losing, I'm always applauded and made to feel like a hero. I compete with all my strength and for that fans will kiss my face, shake my hand, take hundreds of photos and even pay me money. They want to show their gratitude for choosing to experience part of their culture, and showing courage against their wrestlers. It might be a modest level of international diplomacy, but it's an effective and substantial reason for keeping the sport as a part of the Olympic Games. Certainly no other sport, not even the worldwide phenomenon of modern pentathlon can claim the same social consequences.
Wrestling is the purest form of sport and the root of all other competition. A match for superiority over yourself and an opponent is the starting block for games like Kabbadi, which uses compact geographical areas as part of a multi-person running and wrestling game. Kabbadi and its cousins developed into larger format games like rugby, which used idols and geography as the representation of control and power. Eventually those games were spun, twisted and manifested into contests like soccer, tennis, football and even table tennis. All were derived from wrestling.
The reaction to the IOC's decision has focused on the poor leadership of FILA, the corruption of the IOC and the overall idiocy of removing one of the original sports. Others have mentioned that ratings and sponsorships aren't wholly competitive with other sports. Those things might matter for the bullshit metrics, but maybe these wunderkinds of social engineering and management should attempt to quantify the loss of human experience likely to be felt by eliminating the world's most important wrestling competition. What about the girls living in squalor in India hoping that they can struggle to become an Olympic champion and a national hero? What about curtailing violence in areas of tribal conflict? Can trampoline replace the role of wrestling on the Mongolian steppe?
Maybe this elimination is all about the quantitative shortcoming of wrestling, but there are meaningful qualitative consequences to consider. As of now the IOC has decided to snuff out centuries of rich traditions so that a few ethnocentric elitists in Western Europe can enjoy a vintage bottle of champagne and congratulate themselves for doing exactly the opposite of their charge.