In February 2013, the wrestling and sporting world was dumbfounded when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) removed the sport of wrestling as one of the “core 25 sports” in the Olympic Games. Wrestling—along with eight other sports—was being forced to plead its way back into the Olympic games lineup. The morning I learned of this decision, I felt like a mule had kicked me in the stomach. I felt as if a piece of me were on the chopping block and that part of my identity was going to live or die based on the upcoming final IOC decision—and I was not alone.
Why does wrestling matter so much to me and the thousands of other wrestlers up in arms over this? For me, I was totally lost at 13 years old without any sense of belonging to any group and having any mentorship or vision of who I wanted to become. I would try fads on for size prior to finding wrestling—including being a skater, becoming religious, and, as embarrassing as it is to admit, even a phase as an extreme rollerblader.
It all changed one summer day going into my freshman year at SLO High School when my friend Raniag Bascos dragged me into a wrestling practice. As you can imagine, I got my ass kicked by everyone—even lighter wrestlers. Despite the fact that nobody expected me to win that day, deep down I was furious about basically getting my ass kicked in front of my peers and feeling helpless. As my first wrestling practice concluded, with my heart pumping, neck tweaked, a mat-burned face and sweat-drenched shirt, I knew that I would be back for more, and next time I wasn’t going to do as poorly. Looking back on my wrestling career now, you can basically copy/paste that roller coaster of emotion and multiply it by almost every day for three years until I became “good.”
Once I was considered good at wrestling, my life permanently changed. I believed that everything in life, compared to wrestling, was easy (which is also a famous quote in the wrestling world) and to this day that sentiment stands as true. Being good at wrestling gave me, for the first time, respect from people I respect. Being good at wrestling made me feel strong, for I had practiced, over and over, overcoming objections and pushing through mental and physical barriers, reaching goals I never thought were possible. Wrestling was me, and I was wrestling, and all else was second. In fact, the original Meathead Movers logo was a wrestler, because my brother and I started the labor-service just so we could still wrestle—not necessarily so we could be movers. After high school, I had planned to wrestle in college and then shoot for the Olympics. This vision and focus for wrestling is shared by all elite wrestlers, and that was my life focus and No. 1 priority for about 10 years—hence my passionate reaction to the news in February.
Luckily, earlier this month the IOC announced that wrestling will remain in the Olympics for the foreseeable future—and for good reason. Many people would come to me and ask, “How could the IOC possibly remove wrestling from the Olympics? Weren’t wrestling and, like, running the original sports?”
Another common question was, “How could wrestling be removed from the Olympics, but they’re keeping ribbon dancing/power walking/ping-pong/shuffle board?”
After much thought and reflection, I’ve found that this “almost” tragedy of removing wrestling speaks to the rooted truths in much of life: money, politics, and people not paying attention compounded with taking what they have/or their position for granted.
Here’s what happened: Wrestling organizations such as USA Wrestling and, internationally, FILA have been around for ages, and they’re not run by business people; they’re run by wrestlers. In most cases, they’re run by the greatest wrestlers. Therein lies the problem: Wrestlers are wrestlers. We basically fight each other with a set of rules every day, and we’re not the type to lobby or ask politely. We fight for what we want, and there can only be one winner. In a wrestler’s mind, the people most qualified to represent them are the best wrestlers because that is who we respect: the winners. Wrestlers don’t need to suck up (aka lobby) for what seems to be an inevitable existence since we think all sports were based on our sport—the hardest sport, the manliest sport, and the purest sport—yet we were the afterthought compared to the other more mainstream sports.
For example, wrestlers were allowed to only have matches when basketball wasn’t using the gym first. Wrestling rarely got press or fans showing up to cheer us on, especially compared to baseball, basketball, and football. Unlike the mainstream sports, after a game we’re not going out and partying with the popular kids; we’re going straight to sleep because we’re exhausted, beat up, and may have another match on Thursday night while hoping our sprained ankle, recently dislocated finger, and black eye can heal up in time. Oh, and where is my weight at again?
Wrestling is just flat-out brutal, and the sacrifice is life-consuming. To be completely honest, most of us have chips on our shoulders because we felt like the world was against us: We were one of the first sports to be cut nationally. We get the least attention, yet we’re pushing ourselves beyond what we ever thought was possible. This mentality, perpetuating for decades upon decades, is what led to our defiance to play by the political rules and ultimately do what was necessary to compete against less-established sports that were hungrier for the mantle of legitimacy that comes from being in the Olympics.
The Olympics is an organization—a very powerful, influential, and international organization that, like any business, wants to grow and become more profitable. Associations that represent the different sports lobbies develop relationships with IOC members, discuss ways to make their sport more exciting and marketable, and argue their case for inclusion. Remember, the Olympics is a business. Wrestling simply did not have a seat at the table with the IOC, and better-represented sports like the modern pentathlon and BMX came in, pleaded their case, and put our sport’s back on the ropes. Luckily, wrestlers are wrestlers and we joined forces, organized, and protested this decision. It was a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.
So where does the wrestling community go from here? 1) We must be more inclusive of macro-factors that affect our sport, such as the IOC. 2) Former wrestlers must give back more to wrestling, either monetarily or with their time. 3) Wrestlers should be more inclusionary of other sports and other people.
I’m pleased to say that organizations like FloWrestling.Org and most recently Agon Wrestling have similar perspectives and are taking a business-like approach to promoting and nurturing the growth of wrestling’s audience by making it more exciting and easier to understand.
As you may have read in my previous opinion piece earlier this year, wrestling has had more influence on my life than my parents, schooling, and religion combined. It was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me (up until the day I met my wife), and it was how I found myself and my confidence. My story is not uncommon, and those who may have a troubled past or problems at home are the kids who need wrestling the most and are also the most likely to go down some wrong roads in life. Wrestling remaining in the Olympics gives our sport a Super Bowl, and with that something to look forward to after college. If wrestling were not in the Olympics, that would be yet another valid reason to cut the sport from more colleges, more high schools, and youth programs that would, in turn, have left someone like me lost during my teenage years when I needed it most.
I hope my fellow wrestling community can reflect upon this last seven months, and we can be more businesslike and humble with how we approach each other and the organizations in which we compete. And may the original sport live on forever!
Aaron Steed was a two-time California state finalist in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling and co-founder of Meathead Wrestling Club in 2004, which serves as SLO County’s premier youth wrestling club. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.