Dan Gable was lying in bed at 6 o’clock on the morning of Feb. 12 when he got word. His wife, Kathy, was up early and on her computer. She walked into the bedroom and said, “I’m not sure if it’s true, but I think they took wrestling out of the Olympics.
“It’s probably nothing, just a crazy blog,” said Gable, the most renowned wrestler in U.S. history. “Don’t worry.”
Seconds later, Gable jumped out of bed and went to check for himself. He went to the major wrestling websites. It was true. The International Olympic Committee had voted to removed wrestling from the Olympics in 2020.
Then Gable, one of the toughest men ever to walk onto a wrestling mat, a legendary competitor and coach who has inspired athletes, authors and actors, began crying at his keyboard.
“Then four or five minutes later, I got mad,” Gable said Friday afternoon in Niagara Falls, Ont. “I made a call to USA Wrestling. I was the first call they got. When they answered, I said, ‘Tell me it’s not true.’ ”
But it was true, a shocking takedown for a wrestling community that never saw it coming. Wrestling is known as the world’s oldest competitive sport. It was in the ancient Olympics in 708 B.C. and was one of nine sports in the program when the modern Games resumed in Athens in 1896.
That didn’t matter to the IOC, which felt wrestling was out of step with the modern Olympic movement. The sport didn’t have enough scoring, or enough women. The rules were hard for fans to understand. There wasn’t enough action. At a time when the IOC was embracing hip new sports to spike TV ratings and appeal to a younger demographic, wrestling was stuck in place.
They didn’t like it, but they listened. FILA, the international governing body, got a new president, who reached out to coaches and competitors in various countries. They changed rules to encourage action and scoring. And wrestling began a worldwide campaign to rally support for its cause and remind the public that it’s one of the top participant sports on the planet.
Last Wednesday, wrestling got halfway off the mat. The IOC, which will add one sport to the 2020 Games, whittled a list of eight contenders down to three. Wrestling made the cut, along with squash and baseball/softball, which applied for reinstatement as an entry after getting dumped in 2012.
The final vote comes in September. Some feel wrestling is a longshot for immediate reinstatement. But the sport is getting people’s attention. Gable flew from Iowa to Buffalo on Friday to rally the cause at the “Battle at the Falls,” an international women’s tri-meet among the U.S., Canada and Ukraine at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls.
“I’m here because it’s good for wrestling right now,” said Gable, 64, who advocated for his sport at a minor-league baseball game in Cedar Rapids the night before. “We had an event in New York and got hit hard by an IOC member for not having more females. Three days later in L.A., we had four more women’s matches and they praised us.
“So I’m here because it’s the right thing to do,” Gable said on the last day of World Wrestling Month. “Draw a little attention. This is what we have to do.”
When you’re accused of being stuck in the past, you need to touch the future. The dual meets were preceded by a two-hour free wrestling clinic for about 100 children. Tonya Verbeek, a three-time Olympic medalist for Canada, took part in the clinic. Marty Calder, a former Canadian Olympian and national coach, was on hand. So was Richard DesChatelets, a former Canadian heavyweight star who coached Brock University for 26 years.
“It was disappointing to have them take us out,” said Verbeek, 36, who retired after winning silver in London. “But having said that, I feel in some ways this is going to make us stronger, to fight harder for our sport and create more awareness and make our sport more known.”
That was a common theme Friday, the notion that getting tossed out of the Olympics could actually be a blessing. Presumably, it will force wrestling to become more fan-friendly at a time when sports are about noise and spectacle and instant gratification.
“I think one mistake we make is if we presume our existence is guaranteed,” said Calder, who wrestled for Canada at the 1992 and ‘96 Olympics and is now coaching Brock. “That’s a problem. You have to be proactive in social media and things like that, pumping events up.
“When I watch a Bills or Sabres game, lots of times I could sleep through it. But it’s the action around it. As wrestlers, we haven’t done a great job of that.”
The wrestlers admit they might have grown complacement about their place in the Olympics.
“Maybe wrestling is at fault there,” said Elena Pirozhkova of the U.S., the reigning world champion at 63 kilograms. “But we definitely have made some changes with FILA’s board and with the rules. We want to stay in the Olympics. Everyone is excited.”
She’s not alone. There is organized wrestling in more than 160 countries. High school wrestling in the United States has grown in the last 10 years. Who hasn’t wrestled at some point? It’s instinctive and inexpensive.
Privately, they’ll tell you money is one of the problems. If you don’t think money and politics matter at the highest levels of the Olympics, you haven’t been paying attention.
Modern pentathlon was expected to be bumped from the Games. Of course, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the former IOC president, is on the 15-member board that decided to keep the sport. He’s also vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
Rugby and golf will be in the Olympics in 2016. Jacques Rogge, the current IOC president, is a former rugby player. Golf has Tiger Woods, who is a bigger draw than, say, a double takedown. Wrestling is a humble sport. That doesn’t do a lot for the TV moguls who hold sway over the IOC.
“And that’s the sad, sad part,” said Alex Conti, the Fredonia High wrestling coach. Conti, who was a volunteer assistant for the U.S. in London, helped coach the women Friday. Carlene Sluberski, who had a standout career at Fredonia and is now at Brock, competed for the U.S.
“Anybody who has a brother or sister has wrestled,” Conti said. “If you have a mat, great. If you don’t, you have a living room floor. That’s why people from all cultures participate. In wrestling, 29 countries medaled in the last Olympics. It’s an immense honor to be asked to be here. We’re down to the wire now. I hope they do the right thing.”
Gable knows it will take more than hoping.
He once said, “Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”
You want this guy on your side. Gable went 118-1-1 in college at Iowa. He won the gold at the 1972 Olympics without allowing a point. He won 16 national championships as a coach at Iowa. He coached three Olympic teams.
There have been books and a documentary on Gable. He is a living symbol of perseverance, of getting off the mat. Tom Cruise shouted Gable’s name to motivate himself during film shoots. Author John Irving, a wrestler who uses the sport in his novels, used to work out with the team at Iowa and wrestle Gable.
So Gable has a lot of resources in the fight to keep wrestling in the Olympics. Actor Billy Baldwin, who wrestled in college at Binghamton and helped save its program, is rallying support. Baldwin has reached out to his brother, Alec, and Ashton Kutcher, who wrestled in high school.
“This could be the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” Gable said. “If you’re going to stay in the Olympics, you’ve got to be entertaining and get sponsorship. We’re getting more press now. We’re doing all those little things we should have been doing before. We simplified our scoring, made the rules easier for people to understand.
“We need to do everything we need to do to keep entertainment and get into television more.”
He’d love to get Cruise, a former high school wrestler, more involved in the cause.
“I helped him. Why doesn’t he help me?” Gable said. “It was in an Esquire article. You can look it up. He was on the set and started yelling, ‘Gable! Gable.’ They asked why he was yelling about Clark Gable. He said, no, ‘I’m talking about Dan Gable. What would he do?’
“So he owes me one. I got him through that shoot.”
Wrestling has been Gable’s life. He dedicated himself to the sport when he was 14, to help his parents channel their attention after the murder of his older sister. The fight to save his sport has energized him.
“My wife asked me, ‘What did we do before the Olympics got dropped,’ ” Gable said with a laugh. “We’ve been retired for two years. I’ve never stopped. This did kind of get me out of bed earlier.”