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The influence of the Olympics and the U.S. on the popularization of wrestling

Akira Ota
Professor, School of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are fast approaching, and wrestling is believed to win the most medals out of the Japanese national team. There is much anticipation for Saori Yoshida (women's 53 kg division) and Kaori Icho (women's 58 kg division) to win their fourth consecutive gold medals. Also, Eri Tosaka (women's 48 kg division), who has won gold medals at the World Wrestling Championships three times in a row, is expected to take first place. Although there are hopes for Japanese men wrestlers to win medals, it is nowhere near the level of expectations for women wrestlers. For women, the number of weight classes in the Olympics has increased from four to six, further expanding their possibilities. On the contrary, the number of weight classes for men has decreased from seven to six. Although freestyle and Greco-Roman styles exist for men, only four wrestlers, two for freestyle and two for Greco-Roman style classes, were selected to represent Japan as the qualifiers have become more strict. During my days of actively competing in Olympic wrestling events from Moscow to Barcelona, only men competed in both freestyle and Greco-Roman style wrestling, and 20 wrestlers could represent their country (one wrestler per weight class from each country, and the Asian Qualification Tournament started from the Barcelona Olympics). However, times have changed. (By the way, my qualifying records for four consecutive Olympic Games were easily broken by the two women wrestlers who qualified this year.)

Women's wrestling events for four weight classes (freestyle only) were introduced at the Athens Olympics. Since then, Japan has won a total of seven gold medals at the Olympic Games in Athens, Beijing, and London. Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho have won six of these seven gold medals. Although wrestling is now such a highly recognized sport, do you remember that it was about to be dropped from the Olympics only three years ago?

Photo 1

In February 2013, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made a grave announcement on removing wrestling from the Olympic Games and caused distress among wrestlers and globally concerned parties. The Japan Wrestling Foundation, which had been eagerly waiting for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was also upset that now it was out of the question and immediately started an Internet petition against the IOC. Wrestling-related organizations also started the SAVE THE OLYMPIC WRESTLING Campaign (Photo 1). I have never in my life seen people involved in wrestling around the world become united like that. Because of its presence from the ancient games, no one had imagined wrestling losing its spot. Nonetheless, when this became reality, everyone started to proclaim, “Bring wrestling back to the Olympics!”

Why was wrestling listed among the potential sports to be cut from the Olympics? The IOC examines each sport on 39 items including its popularity, media exposure, and revenue from sponsors. Wrestling was marked as below five on a zero-to-ten scale based on its popularity in the London Olympics, and wrestling’s TV audience size and Internet access were judged to be low. It was also pointed out that the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA, now known as United World Wrestling) had neither a women's committee and nor wrestlers in its decision-making body. Nevertheless, the decision was made by only 14 Executive Board members, including a Taekwondo representative and the son of Samaranch, the former IOC president, who also served as the pentathlon Vice President at the time. It seemed as if no one on the Executive Board committee was interested in protecting wrestling.

Due to the efforts made by the SAVE OLYMPIC WRESTLING Campaign, three sports—wrestling, baseball/softball, and squash—each gave presentations fighting for the final spot. A voting took place at the Executive Board meeting in September with a total of 95 votes cast. As a result of the first count, wrestling won the spot, with vote counts of 49, 24, and 22 respectively. Although people involved in wrestling were nervous throughout this entire process, they started to take action for change. FILA passed a non-confidence vote against its former president and forced him to resign. The new president made many reforms, including rule changes so that wrestling can remain in the Olympics. The following year, he changed the organization's name to United World Wrestling (UWW) and continues to make reforms to this day.

After the World Championship in 2014, following the year in which there was relief wrestling would remain in the Olympics, a ranking of countries by the number of gold medals earned in wrestling for all the Olympics and Word Championships ever held was announced. The country that ranked No. 1 was the Soviet Union/EUN/Russia, with an outstanding number of 432 gold medals. To my surprise, the country that ranked No. 2 was Japan! I could not believe it.

Number of gold medals in the Olympics and World Championships
No. Country Total number Men's freestyle Men's Greco-Roman Women
Olympics World Olympics World Olympics World
1 Soviet Union/EUN/Russia 432 45 168 47 166 1 5
2 Japan 129 17 22 4 3 7 76
3 United States 105 49 36 3 5 0 12
4 Bulgaria 76 7 22 9 33 0 5
5 Turkey 74 17 28 11 18 0 0

Note: The Soviet Union/EUN/Russia does not include the former Soviet Union. EUN was the name used for the former Soviet Union’s sport team, excluding the Baltic States, at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Later, the national Olympic committees for 13 countries of the former Soviet Union came into effect and each country has been participating in the Olympics since (from the Japan Wrestling Federation website).

When I looked into the details, sure enough, Japan owes its high ranking to the remarkable Japanese women wrestlers; they have won a total of 76 gold medals in the World Championships. Why is the Japanese women's wrestling team so strong? Although it is not easy to answer this question, I think this is because the Japanese women's wrestling community has assumed a leadership position in the world. When World Cups were held in Japan, the Japanese women's wrestling community worked together with the international wrestling organizations through friendly competition with the aim of further advancing women's wrestling by means such as inviting wrestlers worldwide to camps and share wrestling moves, practice techniques or reinforcement measures and promote mutual understanding. These efforts have led the Japanese women's wrestling team to the Olympics and women's wrestling to become globally recognized. Is this not the reason why Japan has the world's strongest women's wrestling team?

As for men, there is a big difference between Japan and the United States, which places third, both in freestyle and Greco-Roman style wrestling. When evaluated only by the results of the Olympics, the United States has won more gold medals than the Soviet Union/EUN/Russia at top.

Actually, wrestling is very popular beyond imagination in the United States. The wrestling population during the season as a school and seasonal sport is over one million. We can see how large this number is considering that the number of wrestlers in Japan is about 10,000. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Wrestling Championship attracts an audience of over 110,000 people during the six sessions held over the course of three days, which means slightly fewer than 20,000 people per session! This is several times greater than the audience size for wrestling in the Olympic Games. In Japan, it is extremely difficult to draw in an audience of more than 1,000 people, even for an All Japan Championship. Thus, wrestling is considered a minor sport in Japan.

To illustrate this difference, last November in the United States, a collegiate dual meet between the University of Iowa and Oklahoma State University was held in a football stadium on a mat taking up half of the stadium. There were only 10 individual matches in the stadium with a seating capacity of 70,000, but this game attracted an astounding, world-record audience size of 42,287 people. Although this number of spectators is unheard of in regular wrestling matches, it highlights the popularity of wrestling in the United States.

Additionally, the United States is very good at organizing extravagant events which Japan, or any other country in the world, is unable to imitate. Some of these examples include an international, outdoor wrestling match in the center of New York’s Time Square and a match in Grand Central Terminal, a historic railroad terminal famous for its beautiful architecture. Wrestling may not be as widespread compared to well-established sports such as football, baseball, or basketball, but it can still be considered a major sport in the United States.

Photo 2

Furthermore, heartwarming stories that touch people's hearts heighten its acceptances in the United States. For example, Anthony Robles of Arizona State University was born with only one leg. He has a disorder called congenital limb deficiency, but he has overcome challenging obstacles. His mother, who was a single mother, has supported him since he was a young child, wrestling with him and encouraging him. Robles has reached a point where he could compete against able-bodied wrestlers and became the first one-legged wrestler to win the NCAA championship. He has proved an endless possibility for human beings (Photo 2), and people across the country were deeply moved by his story.

For other episodes, I experienced a wrestling match held in a soccer stadium during the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982 (Photo 3). Wrestling is very popular in India as well. At that time, the soccer stadium, which could seat several tens of thousands of people, was filled to its maximum and people who were unable to enter the stadium went out of control, causing a commotion where the military was called in. Nonetheless, it is still a good memory.

Photo 3

What’s more, wrestling’s popularity in Iran is so tremendous that the country claims wrestling to be its official national sport. A large gymnasium becomes packed with audience members even in aisles and stairs whenever there is a wrestling match. Although women are not allowed to watch wrestling due to religious reasons, most people in the audience are well-acquainted with wrestling and cheer loudly only when a wrestler successfully completes a difficult move (they let out an extra louder cheer when Iran wins). Given these situations, couldn’t wrestling be considered a major sport worldwide?

Should we weigh wrestling’s popularity based on the Olympics, or should it be pushed forth more, American style? Which approach should we take? This is a vexing question for everyone connected to wrestling Japan. In any case, I hope the women wrestlers will bring home the gold medal to Japan in the upcoming Olympics (and the men wrestlers, too).

Akira Ota
Professor, School of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Akira Ota was born in 1957. He graduated from Waseda University in 1981 the Graduate School of Tokai University in 1983. After having worked for the Bureau of Physical Education, School of Human Sciences, and School of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, he currently serves as Professor in the School of Sport Sciences. His publications include Wrestling-shiki Gofun-Kan Exercise [Wrestling-Style 5-Minute Exercise]. He has taught "Fun wrestling course for working adults" in the Extension Center for 20 years since 1997, and the boy's wrestling club "Ota Kids Wrestling" sponsored by Waseda Club 2000 (Tokorozawa City Comprehensive Community Sports Club) in the Tokorozawa Campus for 16 years since 2000.

He was on the Japanese national team in four consecutive Olympics—1980 Moscow, 1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul, and 1992 Barcelona. He did not participate in the games in Moscow due to a boycott, but won silver medals in Los Angeles and Seoul. He competed in the freestyle 90 kg class.