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Kovacevic: Wrestling isn't down for count yet

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
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United States wrestler Kurt Angle, a Mt. Lebanon native, holds the American flag at the freestyle wrestling competition during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. News came out Tuesday that the IOC decided to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics. (Getty Images File)

A wrestler's tale almost always ends in tears.

When ready to retire, he'll take to the mat for one final match. He'll give all he's got, straining every sinew. And when it's done, he'll take off his shoes and leave them right there.

The crowd will rise in unison, as only this shoulder-to-shoulder community can, and roar out its respect.

The wrestler will cry, often uncontrollably. And there's no shame. Emotion in this world is a badge, not a burden.

Early Tuesday morning, Rande Stottlemyer, Pitt's coach of 34 years and a breathing embodiment of the sport in our region, experienced an emotion unlike any he could recall. He sat down for work in his office, powered up the laptop and saw this headline: "Wrestling dropped from 2020 Olympics"

After a double take, it was still real: In a reprehensible, reckless and utterly ridiculous ruling, the International Olympic Committee erased wrestling from its program following the 2016 Games in Rio.

"My jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe it. I ... what I was feeling ... I still really don't know how to react," Stottlemyer was saying in that same office hours later. "I mean, this is wrestling. One of the original Olympic sports. The sport of the Greek gods. And one day, you wake up and it's out? Wow."

Yeah, plenty of wows here.

Wrestling was, indeed, among the nine events in 1896 when the modern Olympics began in Athens. It's also depicted in cave drawings dating to 3,000 B.C. and was part of the ancient Olympics in 708 B.C. It's commonly called the world's oldest sport.

And now ... poof.

The IOC's 15-member board conducted a secret-ballot vote Tuesday in Switzerland, then coldly announced wrestling would be one of eight sports vying for a single opening in 2020. The rest are baseball/softball, climbing, karate, squash, roller sports, wakeboarding and wushu.

I don't know what wushu is, either, but I'm guessing Socrates never had season tickets.

"It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in the vague statement. "It is what's right with the other 25 core sports."

That's a joke, right?

Modern pentathlon?

Rhythmic gymnastics?

Synchronized swimming?

No, it's just IOC being IOC. It's the shadiest sporting outfit in the world this side of FIFA, moved almost entirely by politics and by money, over and under the table. Witness Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the former IOC monarch, being on the IOC board and the modern pentathlon board.

But hey, let's check off any legit motives the IOC might have had in dropping wrestling ...

Cost?

Nope. From covering in London last summer, I can attest it was held inside a convention hall with temporary metal bleachers for seats. Have mat, will travel.

Dope?

Nope. If the IOC is going to start bouncing based on steroids, it'll start with track and field, cycling and weightlifting.

Regional dominance?

Nope. Athletes from 71 nations wrestled in London, compared to 26 in pentathlon. The U.S. once ruled wrestling, but that's spread to Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Cuba Finland, pretty much all over.

It's not too late to argue. Again, it should be stressed this is not a done deal. The IOC board meets again in May, then in September, when it will rule. In the interim, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Wrestling will fight with vigor, as both showed Tuesday. More Facebook pages, Twitter tags, petitions and other voices will emerge. A ton were up by mid-afternoon.

Still, this has the potential to be, as Penn State coach and former champ Cael Sanderson called it, "a tragedy."

Wrestling already has been damaged for years at the NCAA level, having become the default choice for the ax when meeting Title IX requirements for gender equity. Now, it would hit at the foundation, including here in Western Pennsylvania, where the roots run especially deep through the North Hills and Washington and Greene counties.

Think about it: What happens to the next Kurt Angle or Cary Kolat, the next Jake Herbert or Coleman Scott, when the sport's ultimate goal is wiped away?

"Honestly, it's hard to imagine the impact, but it'll be there. Kids dream of being Olympians in our sport," Stottlemyer said. "We've got to respond. Believe me, this battle's just begun."

"I'll do absolutely everything in my power," Sanderson said.

I loved this, too, from Rulon Gardner, author of that golden upset of Alexander "Russian Bear" Karelin in 2000: "It seems like with wrestling, if we don't fight, we're going to die."

The gloves are off.

And the shoes are still on.

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