Oakmont's Peter Santos, working on Bella Vista's Jesse Downs at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Tournament, has Olympic aspirations.

Sacramento wrestling community shocked sport is dropped by Olympics

Published: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

Although area high school wrestlers and coaches are hopeful their sport will be reinstated into the Olympics, they still were shocked the International Olympic Committee voted last week to drop the sport from the 2020 Summer Games.

"It's tragic almost," Casa Roble coach Rene Delgado said. "Wrestling in the United States is a big deal to wrestlers, but in other parts of the world it transcends. It's almost religious."

The IOC's 15-member executive board voted by secret ballot to drop wrestling as one of its 25 core sports during a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.

There is a chance the executive board could reinstate wrestling in May, when it considers adding a 26th sport to the 2020 Games, especially in light of the anger, protest and online petition drive the decision has spurred.

The final vote will be made at the IOC general assembly in September in Buenos Aires.

In recent years, Olympic members have expressed reservations about the growth of the Summer Games and concerns about the relevancy of some events with younger television viewers, one reason wakeboarding, rock climbing and rollerblading are being considered alongside wrestling, baseball and softball for Olympic status.

But politics also enters the equation, some contend, a reason why the obscure but politically connected modern pentathlon, which includes shooting, horseback riding, fencing and running, was spared while a sport that has a global reach and played a central role in the original Greek Olympic Games got the ax.

Wrestling has more than three times the participating countries (180 to 53) and nearly twice the Olympic viewing audience (23 million vs. 12.5 million) of the modern pentathlon.

"Almost every country in the world wrestles, so why take that from them?" asked Oakmont's Peter Santos, the No. 2-ranked 170-pound wrestler in California, according to www.thecaliforniawrestler.com. "Yet they keep sports like horse riding. That's absurd."

When Valley coach Rod Edmisten heard the news, he started doing research and signed every online petition he could find.

"With the exception of track and field, (wrestling) has the most diverse dispersion of medals in the Olympics," Edmisten said. "So how can they get rid of it while they want to keep badminton, judo and (taekwondo)? That's mind-boggling."

Delgado said not reinstating wrestling would have a huge impact on Third World and developing countries, since it's considered one of the least expensive sports.

"Globally, it hurts," Delgado said. "In Central Asia and the Middle East, wrestling is almost indoctrinated in their culture. Now you will be excluding countries that aren't successful in a lot of other events from winning medals."

Delgado also worries about another roadblock for young American wrestlers in a sport that colleges at the highest levels already are shedding because of financial constraints and Title IX concerns.

Since 1981, NCAA Division I men's wrestling programs have been cut from 146 to 77 – three remain in California – though women's and lower-division men's programs are growing.

"There are some kids here who probably dream of competing in the Olympics," Delgado said of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Tournament on Friday and Saturday at Del Campo. "We've got a couple of kids, Peter Santos and Shayne Tucker, who maybe one day could vie for a 2020 spot. Now that may not be there for them."

Santos and Tucker have grown up dreaming of Olympic glory.

"To compete in an Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Bella Vista's Tucker, the state's No. 1 ranked 152-pounder. "So I'm saddened and disappointed. I'm still trying to make sense of (the IOC's) decision."

Wrestling remains popular at the high school level with about 272,000 boys and 8,200 girls participating nationally. It's the sixth-most popular boys sport in America.

"I'm not sure how much impact the IOC's decision will have on high school," Edmisten said. "But it's going to have an effect on the sport, especially among those upper-echelon wrestlers who continue after college. Now they may say, 'Why am I putting in all this work if I can't compete in the Olympics?' "

Longtime Bella Vista coach Mike Lee said wrestling needs revamping at the Olympic level. He said failing to penalize stalling and rewarding defense over aggressiveness are crowd killers.

"With LeBron James, you're going to see amazing things happen all the time," said Lee, who has coached wrestling at Bella Vista 22 years. "With Mike Trout, you're going to see amazing catches and hits. But with the best wrestlers, you're not going to see as much because they're technically sound, defensively perfect."

Even Rulon Gardner's famed Miracle-on-the-Mat upset of Russia's Alexander Karelin for the 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman super-heavyweight gold medal ended 1-0.

While the debate about the sport's dynamics and a failure to better self-promote are reasonable, Delgado worries that the Olympics continue to careen toward celebrity, money and political power plays rather than their original intent.

Said Delgado: "We're getting away from the whole spirit of the Olympics and the ideal of pure amateurs."

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