The International Olympic Committee's announcement Tuesday that it will drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games shocked the wrestling world.
“I don't think anybody had any idea this was coming,” said Wayne Baughman, former University of Oklahoma and Olympic wrestler and Air Force coach. “We were blindsided.”
Reaction ranged from outrage to disbelief to predictions that it would lead to the death of the sport in some places around the globe.
“If the Olympic committee stays on this attitude, for sure wrestling is killed in France,” said Phillipe Vidal, who is the team leader of a French wrestling squad currently training in Norman with the University of Oklahoma's club team.
Kenny Monday, former Oklahoma State wrestler and 1988 Olympic gold medalist, said the Olympic Games are the pinnacle in wrestling.
“I can't imagine a kid not having that dream anymore,” Monday said. “I think they are making a mistake. It's man's oldest sport. I don't understand it. I don't get it.”
Former University of Oklahoma wrestlers Sam Hazewinkel and Jared Frayer both wrestled for the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. They were angered and frustrated by the IOC's decision.
“Guaranteed, a lot of dreams were crushed today,” Hazewinkel said.
Frayer, an assistant coach for the Sooners, said, “It was a pretty low blow. It's something we as wrestlers see as the ultimate goal, making the Olympics.”
The IOC executive board decided to retain modern pentathlon, the event considered most at risk, and removed wrestling instead from its list of 25 “core sports.”
“I am horrified by this announcement,” said Wayne Wells, a former Sooner wrestler who won gold in the 1972 Olympic Games.
The IOC board voted to drop wrestling after reviewing a report that analyzed 39 criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity.
The final decision by the 15-member board also was subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.
Many people in Oklahoma, however, expressed optimism Tuesday that the decision would be overturned.
“We've got our backs against the wall,” said Lee Roy Smith Jr., an Oklahoma State wrestling legend and executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater. “I think there is going to be a challenge to this executive committee's decision. There needs to be an investigation of it, quite frankly.
“We'll have an opportunity to present our case to the IOC before it makes its final decision. And that will be a tough case to make. But our position is very strong globally.”
University of Oklahoma wrestling coach Mark Cody is optimistic the decision will be overturned.
“I think in my heart of hearts it won't stick,” he said. “I just wonder if every country was really represented at the meeting when they decided what the fate was going to be of our sport.”
His predecessor at the University of Oklahoma, former Sooner wrestling coach Jack Spates, said the popularity of Olympic wrestling, which combines freestyle and Greco-Roman events, has been hindered by international rule changes that make it less exciting.
Olympic wrestling matches in the 1970s were more high-scoring and much more entertaining for fans and television viewers, Spates said.
“Back then, if you weren't seeking to score, constantly working to score, then they were hitting you for stalling,” Spates said. “The result was extremely exciting wrestling. Hopefully, we can get back to a more wide open style of wrestling (in the Olympics), but it would be a tremendous tragedy to eliminate our sport.”
Wells also thinks international rule changes have hurt wrestling's popularity.
“I hate the rules,” he said. “There is not much incentive to try and get a fall. I just think it's so hard for fans to follow. International rules have changed so much that I can't even follow it.”
Even if wrestling is no longer part of the Olympics, coaches and athletes say it will continue to remain a strong sport in the United States. Cody said it's a myth that the sport is dying.
High school participation has grown by 40,000 in the United State over the past decade, Cody said. And there are 95 new college wrestling teams since 1999, plus 21 intercollegiate wrestling teams just for women.
But in countries such as France, wrestling receives support only because it's an Olympic sport, Vidal said.
The United States will have allies in Russia and Iran, where wrestling is the most popular sport, to fight the IOC ruling.
However, the United States influence with the IOC is not as great as many Americans would like to think, Baughman said.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Baughman said. “Wrestling is one of the ancient Olympic sports, second only to running. It's been in the modern Olympics pretty much since the beginning.
“I don't think it's a done deal, but it's going to be tough. The International Olympic Committee is only concerned about TV viewers and putting butts in the stands. Once the IOC has made up their mind, they are not going to admit they made a mistake.”
Like most wrestlers, winning an Olympic gold medal was a Monday's dream as a kid. Now as a coach, he tries to help others live the same dream. But that dream may no longer be attainable after the 2016 Olympic Games.
“We sell the dream,” Monday said. “It's not going to kill wrestling, but I never thought wrestling would not be part of the Olympics.”
Oklahoman Columnist Berry Tramel and The Associated Press contributed to this report