Why is freestyle wrestling the least popular Olympic sport?by Richard Beard / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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By the end of July, over 3.5m tickets had been sold for the 26 sports making up the London 2012 Olympics. There were seats unsold for football and volleyball, but the only individual discipline with tickets left over was freestyle wrestling. In the competition for least-loved Olympic sport in Britain, freestyle wrestling was the winner.
What is it, exactly, that no one is in a rush to see? Freestyle wrestling differs from all-male Greco-Roman wrestling (also an Olympic discipline, but sold out) in three ways. Holds below the waist are allowed, the legs may be used in both attack and defence and, since 2004, the sport has included four weight-categories for women.
Not enough, it would seem, for a nation of discerning sports fans who apparently prefer the non-contact calisthenics of weightlifting. It’s hard to see what freestyle wrestling has done wrong, especially as on YouTube the highlights play well to rock music. The crisis moment of a freestyle bout is a flurry of explosive athleticism, bodies driven hard into the ground and wrestlers in barely credible contortions, legs awry and ears cauliflowered to the mats. This breathtaking physicality is the main attraction of one of the oldest of sports.
In 3,000 years the objective of a wrestling contest has barely changed—to overpower and gain total control over an opponent. It can take a while. A bout at the 1912 Olympics lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes, which led to the introduction of a points-scoring system. Points require rules: wrestling would never be so simple again.