The move is set to take effect for the 2020 Olympics and eliminates a sport that’s been a staple of both the ancient and modern games.
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports,” Gardner told The Associated Press by phone from Logan, Utah. “To get the death penalty out of nowhere.”
The only sports in which the Americans have won more medals than wrestling is swimming and track and field — and those two have far more medal opportunities.
Americans have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, by far the most of any nation. Though the U.S. had slipped in recent Olympic cycles, it bounced back with a pair of London Games gold medalists in Jordan Burroughs — possibly the best wrestler in the world — and Jake Varner.
“I do think wrestling people are the strongest in the world, and they’re resilient. And we’ll come out of whatever happens. But short term, yeah, it’s sad,” 2004 Olympic gold medalist and Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said.
“I just think of the kids in our program that dream of being Olympic champions. And to think that now that’s no longer an opportunity just so the IOC stay fresh and continue to rotate sports and whatever their plan is — it’s tough to think about.”
Wrestling is also one of the most popular youth sports in the U.S. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that the sport was sixth among prep boys with nearly 275,000 competing in 2010-11.
“Wrestling is the Olympics. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most demanding and most humbling sport there is. It teaches you so many life lessons,” said Jake Herbert, who wrestled for the U.S. in the London Games.
Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. They will be vying for a single opening in 2020.
USA Wrestling executive director Richard Bender calls his sport “one of the most diverse,” with nearly 200 nations from all continents participating.