Side-by-side, long past their athletic primes, three examples of USA Wrestling's glory days were on full display Thursday.
Speaking as part of a leadership luncheon at the Jim Thorpe Museum, Wayne Wells, Danny Hodge and Wayne Baughman reminisced on past exploits, ranging from their legendary status at Oklahoma to their highly successful runs through the Olympics.
It was a brief reminder of the dominance displayed by not only these three, but the entire American wrestling program back in the sport's heyday, highlighted by 13 medals, nine of them gold, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
But those days are gone.
In the 2008 Beijing Games, USA Wrestling managed only three medals (one gold), producing the lowest output since 1980, when the Americans boycotted the Moscow Games.
“I'm an old man, so I may be a pessimist,” Baughman said. “But I know that I lived through the best of times, as far as wrestling is concerned.”
Overall, Baughman said the recent wrestling dip can be traced back to the high school level.
“Wrestling is a tough sport, and as our society gets softer, in my opinion, there are less people willing to pay the price,” Baughman said. “Here in Oklahoma, the quality of high school wrestling has just plummeted. We were number one for years and now we'll be lucky to be in the middle.”
But where the sport has suffered the most is at the college level.
Since 1972, spanning all college divisions, 662 wrestling programs have been dropped. Many of those were deemed expendable with the passing of Title IX, a law that pushes for equal representation of male and female athletes at universities.
“I don't have anything against Title IX or what it stands for,” Wells said. “But Title IX has severely affected wrestling. So many schools do away with it so they don't have to fight the problem of having a corresponding women's sport. So I think that's the underlying reason (wrestling is down).”
With reduced participation, directly influenced by the loss of programs, there's been a dramatic decrease in the popularity of the sport.
People don't read about it as much. Kids don't watch it as much. Young athletes don't participate as much.
“Two years after I graduated from Oklahoma, when Wells was wrestling, we outdrew basketball every year,” Baughman said. “Not only would we fill the stadium every time, but basketball wouldn't have it half-full.”
Times have changed, with the big money sports such as basketball and football dominating media coverage and luring the promising young American athletes.
Meanwhile, other wrestling powers, particularly Russia, have maintained a strong devotion to the sport.
So the number of U.S. wrestling medals has dwindled. And the glory days are in the past.
“You'd like to see things that you put so much into stay up and stay healthy and do well,” Wells said. “But it's just kind of one of those things where you say that's kind of life. It's where we are at.”