Rulon 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 when International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games.
The move is set to take effect for the 2020 Olympics and eliminates a sport that’s been a staple of both the ancient and modern games.
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports,” Gardner told The Associated Press by phone from Logan, Utah. “To get the death penalty out of nowhere.”
The decision by the IOC to phase out wrestling will leave the U.S. without one of its most successful Olympic sports.
The only sports in which the Americans have won more medals than wrestling is swimming and track and field — and those two have far more medal opportunities.
Americans have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, by far the most of any nation. Though the U.S. had slipped in recent Olympic cycles, it bounced back with a pair of London Games gold medalists in Jordan Burroughs — possibly the best wrestler in the world — and Jake Varner.
“I do think wrestling people are the strongest in the world, and they’re resilient. And we’ll come out of whatever happens. But short term, yeah, it’s sad,” 2004 Olympic gold medalist and Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said.
“I just think of the kids in our program that dream of being Olympic champions. And to think that now that’s no longer an opportunity just so the IOC stay fresh and continue to rotate sports and whatever their plan is — it’s tough to think about.”