Why is freestyle wrestling the least popular Olympic sport?by Richard Beard / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
Britain’s Yana Stadnik is a medal hope for next year’s Games
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.
At London 2012, the freestyle wrestlers will grapple on a circular area 9 metres in diameter for two-minute sessions in a best-of-three contest. If a session ends in a draw, there is a 30-second tiebreak called The Clinch. The attacking wrestler locks his arms around one of the defender’s legs and has 30 seconds to make a decisive move. This is more complicated than it sounds.
The Clinch was not a feature of wrestling as first recorded at the Olympic games of 708 BC. This was a direct hand-to-hand contest to discover the fortius in the Olympic refrain of citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger). It soon became evident that in wrestling, “stronger” requires brain in addition to brawn, strategy before a fall. The philosopher Plato (from platon meaning “broad”) was a keen…