TERRE HAUTE —
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
Anyone old enough surely remembers the scene. Atlanta served as the setting. The event was the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. Bruce Baumgartner led Team USA into a raucous Olympic Stadium wearing a sublime grin and all the ingredients of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” Navy blue sport coat. Red tie. White Panama hat, with shirt and pants to match. He carried a 10-foot American flag pole one-handed, with ease, as if it were no bigger than a track baton, with dozens of similarly attired fellow countrymen and women following behind. Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame that hot Georgia night.
The moment screamed “U-S-A.”
That was 1996. The United States hasn’t hosted the Summer Games since.
“I think that was my big moment as far as athletics goes,” Baumgartner recalled Tuesday.
He earned the chance to seize it as a heavyweight champion of one of the Olympics’ — and the world’s — oldest sports, wrestling. From his senior season at Indiana State University in Terre Haute in 1981-82 until his retirement in 1998, Baumgartner never lost to an American wrestler. He seldom lost to any opposing wrestler, winning the NCAA title at ISU, and then 13 world-level medals, and four Olympic medals, including two golds. His fourth Olympic medal — a U.S. wrestling record — came at those Atlanta Games, at age 35.
Twelve years later, during his induction into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame alongside boxer Oscar De La Hoya and NBA star David Robinson, Baumgartner was called one of America’s greatest Olympians ever.
On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee decided to drop wrestling from the Games, starting in 2020. If the IOC made such a decision a generation ago, Baumgartner’s big moment in Atlanta would never have happened.
“It shocks me. It dumbfounds me,” Baumgartner said, “because wrestling’s been in [the Olympics] for so many years.”
From the get-go, in fact.
In 1896, when the modern Olympics launched at their birthplace — Athens, Greece — wrestling was one of nine sports on the roster. That was just 116 years ago, though. The connection goes further back. Ancient Olympians began competing in wrestling in 708 B.C. That was only 2,720 years ago, though. Wrestling shows up in the Old Testament. (See Jacob getting a near-fall in Genesis.) Also, archaeologists discovered cave drawings depicting wrestling, Baumgartner pointed out.
“Historic” seems inadequate as an adjective for a sport mentioned in the same book of the Bible as Noah’s ark.
The Olympics diminishes itself by abandoning it.
“It is one of the original, transition-type sports,” Baumgartner said of its inclusion when the Olympics re-emerged in 1896. “I think it will lose a part of history.”
So, why would the Olympic honchos — the IOC executive board — treat one of its vital organs like an expendable appendix?
Think 2013, rather than 1996, 1896 or 708 B.C.
The Games are built around 25 “core” medal-awarding sports in the 21st-century Olympiads. Multiple sports vie to be the 26th medal sport. Eliminating one sport makes room for the IOC to add another. Golf is in, along with rugby, according to The Associated Press. Why golf? Well, consider the criteria the IOC used to make the cut. TV ratings, ticket sales and general popularity stood out, obviously, on that IOC priority list, which also included global participation, “political, emotional and sentimental factors,” the AP reported.
Using that criteria, the IOC chose wrestling as the odd man out over, ahem, modern pentathlon. Olympic insiders seemed certain the ax would fall on modern pentathlon. “Modern” is a bit of a misnomer. This sport involves the five skills needed to be a 19th-century cavalry officer — fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting. (Never mind that the ancient Greek Olympic pentathlon included wrestling.) Despite markedly lower TV ratings than wrestling, the IOC spared the cavalry competition. It probably didn’t hurt that the son of former IOC Chairman Juan Samaranch is both the vice president of the international pentathlon organization (UIPM) and an IOC board member.
Baumgartner, though, understands the Olympics’ need for strong public interest to thrive and survive.
“I think there’s a balance. Obviously, you’ve got to move toward the more popular sports — snowboarding [at the Winter Games] — because that’s what the younger generation wants to watch,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the traditional sports.”
He has a firm understanding of both. Baumgartner spoke Tuesday by telephone from the campus of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. As the 52-year-old athletic director of that NCAA Division II school, he’s around college students daily and has been since joining that university’s athletic staff in 1984. He and his wife, Linda, also have three sons in college and high school.
Even with that grasp of youthful interests, Baumgartner fears one consideration skewed the necessary “balance” in the IOC’s decision.
“I just hope it’s not being driven by ratings,” he said.
If so, golf satisfies that IOC desire. The sport’s top pros are recognized worldwide, from Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Golf doesn’t need the Olympics, though.
“You can see those players almost every weekend. Now you’ll be able to see them at the Olympics,” said Baumgartner, who emphasized that he enjoys watching and playing golf. “You get to see the best wrestlers once every four years.”
Wrestling not only needs the Olympics, but also it embodies the Games’ legacy. Physical size offers no advantage. Nor does wealth or nationality. More than 300 wrestlers from 71 different countries competed at the London Games last summer. Their duels test strength, endurance, skill, speed, and a threshold for pain, regardless of the size of the crowd or TV audience. The athletes’ “ratings” of the Olympic experience are high.
“It’s just a fantastic event. It’s awesome,” Baumgartner said. “The pageantry, the competitiveness and the intensity — it’s great — and the friendship, and winning, and trying to be the best.”
The sport has one last chance, albeit a slim one, to be included in the 2020 Games as one of many jockeying to be the 26th medal sport. The IOC meets again in May in Russia, and then presents the 2020 roster to the full IOC General Assembly for the final vote in September. In the meantime, the USA and world wrestling organizations will be “just trying to sell the facts,” Baumgartner said.
He insisted, “It’s not over till it’s over,” but acknowledged the situation is “bad.”
“It’s sad,” Baumgartner said, “a sport I’ve spent my whole life in …”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.