By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
Chris Horpel was a step away from being an Olympic wrestler in 1976. He helped coach brothers Mark and Dave Schultz at Palo Alto High before they won Olympic gold medals in 1984. And he saw the Olympic dream in his wrestlers at Stanford University and while coaching U.S. international teams.
Horpel, now in his 10th year as Gunn High's wrestling coach, knows the sport inside and out and has been involved with it at every level. Thus he was frustrated, shocked and disappointed by Tuesday's news that the International Olympic Committee was dropping wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games.
"It hurts all the way down to the very bottom," Horpel said. "If you get into wrestling, your dream is to become an Olympian. It's what fuels the fire."
The IOC essentially doused that fire with its announcement during a meeting by the executive board in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was decided that modern pentathlon would be retained and wrestling removed from its list of 25 "core sports." The IOC made the move after reviewing the 26 current Olympic sports.
The IOC board made the decision after reviewing a report that analyzed criteria that included TV ratings, ticket sales, global participation, and popularity.
The only sports in which American athletes have won more medals than wrestling is swimming (520) and track and field (788). Both those sports have more medal opportunities than wrestling. Nonetheless, Americans have won 124 Olympic freestyle medals -- more than any other nation. The USA won two gold medals at the 2012 London Games, which featured 344 athletes competing in 11 medal events in freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman.
"It makes no sense," Horpel of eliminating wrestling from the Olympics. "Wrestling has been part of almost every ancient Olympics."
Wrestling's Olympic heritage stretches back to 708 BC when it appeared in the Ancient Games. Greco-Roman (upper body) wrestling was resurrected for the 1896 Olympics in Athens with freestyle wrestling making its debut in the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Wrestling has appeared in every Games since, except for Paris in 1900.
"Eliminating a sport that has been part of every Modern Olympics seems crazy," said Horpel. "It's one of the original sports and every country does it, kind of like soccer. It makes no sense to me because wrestling in an inexpensive sport."
Horpel believes wrestling ended up on the chopping blocks after the rules for Olympic wrestling were changed.
"The current Olympic rules are strange," Horpel said. "The folks at FILA (international governing body) thought they changed the rules after 2004 to help TV ratings and fans. Instead, they made it boring and hard to understand. I haven't coached an international team since."
By eliminating one sport, the IOC will be allowed to add another sport for the 2020 Games when the IOC executive board meets in May in St. Petersburg, Russia. Wrestling will re-apply for Olympic status along with a combined baseball-softball bid, karate, squash, roller sports, wakeboarding, sport climbing and a Chinese martial art called wushu. The final vote will be made by the IOC general assembly in September.
The fact wrestling was just excluded makes it highly unlikely for it to be re-instated so soon.
Horpel is concerned for the sport of wrestling in general and that funding on a national level will disappear.
"As events disappear, so will opportunities," said Horpel. "Ultimately, all these things funded by the Olympic dream will be gone."
Horpel said the Olympics is everything to wrestling. He pointed out that Mark Schultz won two world championships and that Dave won seven medals in world championship competition. Yet, the only brothers ever to win gold medals in the same Olympics will be remembered only for that accomplishment.
"In the public's mind, they'll only be know for what they did at the Olympics," said Horpel, who coached at Stanford for 25 years and later guided the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club.
Before women's wrestling was added to the 2004 Olympics, Horpel said, the world championships were literally a joke for the women.
"When it was announced as an Olympic sport, it just took off," he said. "It became legitimate."
Gunn junior Cadence Lee is one of the top young female wrestlers in the country and likely had the Olympic dream tucked away somewhere. If that dream is gone, she may have to decide at some point that wrestling may not be financially worth it.
"Every high school wrestler aspires to be in the Olympics," said Horpel. "There are no professional options. This ruling will hurt wrestling in general.
"I am hopeful that two things happen, that the (wrestling) rules change back to what they used to be (more like our high school and collegiate style) and that it is reinstated."
Interestingly enough, two wrestling movies are do out soon -- both involving the Schultz brothers. Horpel said one is a big Hollywood production focusing on Mark's story. Channing Tatum reportedly will play Mark while Mark Ruffalo (who recently starred as The Hulk in 2012's 'The Avengers') is playing Dave.
Another film, along the lines of a documentary, will focus on Dave Schultz and his tragic death in 1996.
Wrestling evidently still can sell on the big screen, but not on the Olympic stage.