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IOC's decision to drop wrestling unifies sport

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 11:28 p.m.
FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2000, file photo, USA's Rulon Gardner waves the American flag following his gold medal win against three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexandre Kareline, of Russia, in the Greco-Roman 130 kg final wrestling match at the Summer Games in Sydney. Gardner's epic upset of Russian wrestling great Alexander Karelin in 2000 remains one of the most compelling moments of the modern Olympics. Starting in 2020, youngsters looking to Gardner and Karelin for inspiration won't have a chance to excel on the sport's biggest stage. Gardner and nearly everyone else associated with the sport in the U.S. were jolted Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 when International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games. (AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara, File)

The decision to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport after the 2016 games in Brazil shocked and galvanized the wrestling community.

The IOC announced Tuesday its plan to remove the wrestling championships from the 2020 games. The move still needs to be voted on twice in order to become official.

The IOC's surprising decision to drop wrestling from its list of 25 core sports came after reviewing comprehensive criteria that includes TV ratings and fan interest. A final vote by the IOC general assembly won't come until September. Removing wrestling, a part of the modern inaugural Olympics in 1896, would open a spot for another sport such as baseball, softball, karate or squash.

“In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic games in 2020,'' IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling, it is what's right with the 25 core sports.''

The international wrestling community reacted swiftly to the decision. The move spawned grassroots movements as well as alliances such as the one forged between Penn State's Cael Sanderson and Iowa's Tom Brands.

Their teams appear to be on a collision course at the NCAA Division I Championships next month, but Sanderson and Brands, each former Olympic gold medal winners, have set aside their rivalry for a greater cause.

“I just think of the kids in our program that dream of being Olympic champions,” said Sanderson, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Games. “And to think that now that's no longer an opportunity just so (the IOC) can stay fresh and continue to rotate sports and whatever their plan is, it's tough to think about.”

Wrestling's best chance of remaining part of the Olympics is for the sport to successfully lobby the IOC to keep it.

It didn't take long for that effort to gain traction.

Petitions popped up on social media sites, and the Facebook page “Save Olympic Wrestling” had 5,000 followers by noon.

Sanderson and Brands, two of the sport's biggest names, pledged to work together, and Jake Herbert, a North Allegheny graduate who competed in the 2012 Games, said, “We're planning on showing the IOC that wrestling is it.”

Herbert, recovering from shoulder surgery last month, said he did about 20 interviews Tuesday as part of a larger publicity campaign. His voice was among many that resonated with wrestling fans.

“We need to pull everyone in the world together and get everyone on the same page 100 percent. We need to come up with a game plan and fight for this,” former gold medal heavyweight Rulon Gardner said in comments released by USA Wrestling. “We need other countries like Russia on board to help us. We can't let this sport die. We need to act quickly on this and do everything we can to keep this great sport alive.”

Indeed, the effort to save wrestling as an Olympic sport won't just take place in the United States. The sport is immensely popular in Russia and Iran as well as some smaller countries in central Asia. Rich Bender, the USA Wrestling executive director, said his organization will be a “leader in the international effort to ensure that wrestling remains on the Olympic program.”

“I hope this unifies the wrestling world,” Clarion coach Troy Letters said. “They're going to see how much power we have when we're unified as a sport.”

Letters, who starred at Shaler and won a national championship at Lehigh, helped Joe Williams train for the 2004 Olympics. Letters is among many wrestlers in Western Pennsylvania who have a connection to the Olympics.

Mt. Lebanon's Kurt Angle won a gold medal as a heavyweight at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Herbert and Waynesburg graduate Coleman Scott represented the United States in the 2012 London Games.

Canon-McMillan coach Chris Mary keeps a pin commemorating the 1988 Games in Seoul in a box with other treasured collectibles.

Mary, who wrestled at West Virginia, was given the pin by his former college coach Nate Carr, whom he helped train for the Olympics.

“You would think there would be enough support (to keep wrestling as an Olympic sport),” said Mary, who last weekend guided Canon-McMillan to the Class AAA state championship. “But sometimes board decisions are hard to overturn.”

Bender said almost 200 countries participate in wrestling. The fact there are more than 8,200 girls competing at the prep level in the United States, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, bolsters USA Wrestling's argument of how inclusive the sport is.

Because wrestlers are matched against one another by weight, Herbert said, competitors don't have to be a certain size to compete in the sport.

“Anyone can do it at anytime,” Herbert said. “Isn't that what the Olympics is all about?”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.

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