As many of you may have heard, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to recommend wrestling be completely cut out of the Olympics as part of the regular program in 2020. As someone who’s life has been spent in the sport – competitor, coach, and fan – let’s just say I’m a little more than ticked off. But, taking a few weeks to think about this, it’s time to look at the reasons behind such a move and what it means.
Let’s get past the obvious ones: Money is the motivating factor, there was no sufficient lobbying body for wrestling, the IOC is corrupt, wrestling has some corruption in it, etc. And, there’s the discussion of values, what wrestling embodies as a sport – hard work, sacrifice, dedication, etc – isn’t valued anymore. And while there’s some merit to that, I think that isn’t the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is, we like to be entertained.
And not only do we like to be entertained, we like to have that entertainment come as cheaply as possible – eliminating any signs of risk and cost – what it took the athlete to get to that point, and the outright experience of losing. That’s what makes wrestling so hard to watch in my mind. It’s not so much that the rules are hard to follow, that people don’t understand the scoring system. It’s the brutal, harsh reality that comes both within and at the end of a wrestling match. Two people fighting each other in order for only one to triumph in domination, the other to experience complete failure. One person experiences joy at the expense of another. One is humbled and in some ways, humiliated at the expense of another’s triumph.
Look at the Olympic Games today – most of the events, the ones we really enjoy, are more entertainment than anything. People are judged on aethetics, form, and technique (diving, gymnastics); others are part of popular culture (basketball, hockey); others are based on indivdual skill (shooting, curling, etc). This isn’t a debate on whether they’re sports or not – because all of them require great athleticsm and skill. But they’re entertainment – they are played and marketed as such. A person can fail miserably and we as spectators don’t feel any great shame or humiliation at their failure. It was the effort – it was entertaining.
Wrestling isn’t like that. Watching the loser of a wrestling match is uncomfortable – and is very unentertaining (although some would say that watching people have a meltdown is entertaining – but they’re strange). I think it’s uncomfortable because well, it mirrors life so well. To have all your efforts and training and dreams crushed in front of people by another you were trying to do the same to, and know that really, you’re fully accountable for that result – it just plain sucks. And isn’t life like that too? We lose a job, an addiction is revealed, we have moments where we’re fully aware how inadequate we are as friends, spouses, and parents, and so forth….there is nothing funny, trivial, or entertaining about that. Our insecurities, inadequacies, and vulnerabilities are bared before the world. We’re left helpless, and there’s nowhere to escape or hide from that.
Sports today are about entertainment…as escapism. People watch sports today because I think they’re trying to find something that helps them escape those realities of risk and cost – of feeling uncomfortable and humiliated. Think about it – the NFL, the NBA, MLB, NHL…..it’s about marketing entertainment, while eliminating any mention of the cost: concussions, broken bodies, performance enhancing drugs that lead to future health problems. It’s the same with the Olympics: it’s called sport in the name of “goodwill,” but it’s primarily about entertainment.
It’s why I think wrestling and even running (the other sport that I think embodies uncomfort) don’t ever catch on. If you watch a distance race or a wrestling match, you’ll see how painful the experience is – there’s a reason why not everyone wrestles or runs distance races. Who would subject themselves to be exposed in that way – pain, undignified, and if you lose, humiliation.
But those who compete in wrestling know something: that those losses, while humiliating for a moment, build a resiliancy in us. Maybe it’s a built resistance to humiliation, pain, and shame. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not so afraid of my insecurities, vulnerabilities, and inadequaces. I can take them head on – talk about them, work on them, learn from them, and even be ok with them being exposed from time to time…..and I think that, is a more life-giving way to live.