Plato's children

Why is freestyle wrestling the least popular Olympic sport?
August 24, 2011
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 wrestler, and his name may have been given to him by his wrestling coach.

As a sales angle, the cerebral side of wrestling doesn’t appear to have worked. Colin Nicholson, the chief executive of the British Wrestling Association, calls freestyle wrestling “combat chess,” and while the combat can be astonishing the chess is a problem. The technical manoeuvring for a hold or a takedown registers in minor shifts of balance and leverage, almost imperceptible to the casual spectator. The psychological battleground, so vivid to the competitor, is masked by stoicism and concentration.

Olympic wrestling must also contend with the shadow of what it is not. The razzmatised World Wrestling Entertainment organisation pushes TV wrestling as pure “sports-entertainment.” By comparison, Olympic wrestling can seem like fighting with the entertainment taken out. Nicholson would like to change this perception.

“Britain will have at least three wrestlers involved in London 2012 because of the wild card entries for the host nation. Unfortunately, for each wrestler we qualify by right we lose one of those places, but our objective is at least one top-eight finish.”

TV wrestling has always understood the importance of personalities. At London 2012 the female British wrestler to watch is Ukrainian-born Yana Stadnik, a 48kg silver medallist at the 2010 European Championships. For the men, Britain’s top freestyle hope is Bristol’s 96kg fighter Leon Rattigan.

Olympic success can revive an obscure sport—curling is the most obvious recent example. The next best shortcut is to get a sport into schools, and wrestling has the advantage of needing little or no equipment. It is more controlled than boxing but can claim similar benefits—encouraging self-control, self-confidence, self-esteem. The British Wrestling Association can plausibly claim that wrestling leads to “greater physical development” (muscles! wrestlers are ripped), “flexibility, strength, balance, co-ordination and razor-sharp reactions.”

If Olympic medals and school sportsdays remain a distant ambition, the fate of wrestling is more likely to be influenced by immigration. The arrival of fighters from eastern Europe, a wrestling stronghold, can provide a solid base for future British participation and success. The Olympic pot pays for wrestling’s full-time chief executive, an administrator and a national coach. Five wrestlers have received funding. The brooms will be out after London 2012, but there is hope for spending rounds to come—wrestling will also feature at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Between now and next August the wrestlers will be working hard at the British Wrestling Academy, a low-roofed single-storey gym in Salford (bookable for events). By then, the last seats at the ExCel centre will surely have been sold, as this is a rare chance in Britain to see the world’s best compete at one of the original Olympic sports. So next summer, when everyone is talking athletics, don’t forget Plato and keep an eye on the wrestling.