By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Wrestling may be on the chopping block in the Olympics, but Oklahoma State wrestling coach John Smith is stressing it has no bearing on the sport as a whole in the United States.
“There is a big difference between Olympic wrestling and our folkstyle wrestling that we do in our youth wrestling, our junior high, our high school wrestling and our college wrestling,” Smith said Wednesday in an interview with The NewsPress. “It’s totally separated. ... It is not any reflection, whatsoever, on the strength of our folkstyle wrestling. It’s two different sports, it’s two different styles — we don’t wrestle freestyle and Greco (the Olympic styles) in our school systems. It has no reflection on that.”
Smith commented that while the sport has seen its struggles in the past, that in fact across the country it has grown in the past 10 years — including high school programs starting up in Texas and Arkansas.
“In high school wrestling across the country, we’ve grown in the past decade with over 40,000 athletes,” Smith said. “We’ve added 95 programs in college — through Division I, II, III and junior college. Title IX threatened wrestling for a period of time, but we've stabilized. But we should never feel comfortable and continue to build our programs within our communities.”
Smith, himself a two-time Olympic gold medal wrestler and former Olympic coach, said Tuesday’s decision by the International Olympic Committee to recommend dropping wrestling as one of the 25 “core sports” from the 2020 Olympics has brought the wrestling community together on a global scale to try to get the sport back into the games.
“After a day, you realize the strength in wrestling and how quickly things happen with how organized we got in such a short amount of time,” Smith said. “The United States is taking the lead on this and will be a big voice, but there are a lot of countries out there that rely on wrestling and are very proud of what they’ve been able to do. And for most of those countries, it’s their most successful sport. ...
“A big voice is being heard and I can say that is being done all over the world. In some places there have already been rallies, already been things you like to see. So a day later, things are better and you recognize that we don’t want to be out of the Olympics for one cycle — we want to be in every one of them.”
Tuesday’s news made headlines around the globe, and rightfully so — with wrestling having been a part of every modern Olympic game since the inaugural 1896 Summer Olympics held in Athens, Greece. Though the sport ranked “low” in several criteria based on IOC documents obtained by The Associated Press — including popularity with the public and global TV audience — it does have the most widespread reach for nations sending Olympians.
“In this past Olympics (in London), we had 71 participating countries in the Olympics — more than anyone in a single sport,” Smith said.
Wrestling still has an opportunity to be a part of the 2020 Olympic Games, which has yet to have a host city announced but will be between Instanbul, Turkey; Madrid, Spain or Tokyo, Japan. The sport is now part of a list of seven sports — along with a combined bid of baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu — that the IOC will vote on to be included in the Olympic Games.
The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“Come May, we’ll present our case. And in my belief, it’s going to be hard to say no,” Smith said. “... I’ll take that fight all the way through May and I’ll be involved with it every single day to May and get wrestling pushed forward to that final vote in September.”
But whether or not wrestling makes its way back into the Olympics, Smith said the sport will continue to go about its business at all levels.
“If that’s the worst case and we don’t wrestle in 2020, we’ll be back up for it in 2024,” Smith said. “... But it’s real important that we not let this be a negative spin on what we are trying to accomplish with wrestling as coaches in this country.”