Real wrestling on the ropes

Last Tuesday was a mixed bag for grapplers.

In Glasgow, durable Swiss lionheart Stephan Lichtsteiner produced a textbook sequence of holds and throws to defend the Juventus six-yard box. But the showcase cut little ice in his homeland. At a meeting in Lausanne, the IOC signalled its intention to axe all Olympic wrestling after the Rio Games.

We mustn’t forget the winners. Undoubtedly, sport lovers everywhere let out a whistle of sheer relief at word that modern pentathlon was safe and street kids from Bangalore to Bogota duly grabbed their pistols, swords and ponies and ran to the pool, now the dream of 2020 was still alive.

But in the strongholds of strong-holding from Tehran to Texas to Toyohashi, there was dismay and anger and sweaty Spandex one-pieces left to ferment in disappointed gear bags.

The pinnacle of a sport had been cut off and the wrestling community will need to twist some arms fast to wriggle out of this chokehold.

Now that the prospects for men who pretend to wrestle were never better, isn’t it a poignant sign of the times that the outlook is bleak for exponents of the real thing? The modern rise of the shaper continues unchecked.

Unfortunately, the real thing is a hard enough sell in the parts of Europe where the Olympic kingmakers conduct most of their business.

Perhaps the sport’s marquee name in London last August was American Jordan Burroughs, who took gold in the freestyle 74kg class. A clean-cut, boastful but charismatic chap, Burroughs was the man wrestling hoped could take the sport out of high school gyms and into the foyers of blue-chip sponsors.

“Poker is on ESPN more than wrestling,” he complained. “I want to be the star that people can look up to.”

Yet the demands of the craft make it difficult for anyone to deliver glamour. The photograph on the front of Jordan’s website finds him performing some kind of reverse Heimlich on a hirsute, distressed Canadian, nose embedded in the secrets of his foe’s backside, both men’s brows understandably creased.

In his triumphant gold medal bout at the ExCeL Arena, the moment when Jordan went 1-0 up is a hideous amalgam of power, grace and indignity. After several minutes of exploratory pawing, Jordan drops low to his knees in what, seemingly, is his signature move, before he shoots forward like a demented cat, grabs a big Iranian by both thighs and capsizes him. There is still mounting and subduing to be attended to before the point is conceded.

You couldn’t call it a handy point.

While football’s wrestling bouts are refereed haphazardly, what’s notable too is the thoroughness of officials on the mat. Despite dressing its protagonists in what are, essentially, supplementary birthday suits, with no evident storage areas, each man is frisked thoroughly before the off, presumably for weapons.

No cheap shots, then. But talking to Irish wrestling chief Michael McCauley, it’s clear the whole sport was blindsided by this week’s call.

Michael heard about it on the radio and is certain the world governing body had grown complacent about its Olympic place and had leaned too heavily on the crutch of ancient history, refusing to modernise the sport and package it more attractively for a TV audience.

But perhaps, as importantly, the wrestlers didn’t lobby decision-makers as eagerly as some of its competing sports managed. The modern pentathlon vice-president, for example, is Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, son of former IOC chief Juan Sr. The Samaranchs would be good men to schmooze.

And that is what will be needed now. While the wrestlers on the ground starve on rations of skimmed milk and egg white, the people securing their futures will have to dine heartily at many top tables before a final decision is made later this year.

So many things, from Jordan Burroughs’ chances of making ESPN to college scholarship funding to national pride in the old Soviet bloc depends on it.

The sport simply can’t afford to submit.

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