TV takes mat as golf gets toe-hold
Tarvi Thomberg (blue) of Estonia is flipped by Hamsa Yerlikaya of Turkey in the men's Greco-Roman wrestling 84kg qualification round during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
If you are interested in discovering your professional wrestling name, there is a site on the internet just for you. With admirable clarity, the page is called www.wrestlingname.com. Simply enter your own name and up pops a new moniker, suitable to be used when grappling for cash. I tried it while watching a bout in the 96 kilogram class of the Graeco-Roman wrestling at the London Olympics. Adam Wheeler, representing the US, came up as Cardiac Tempest. His opponent, a German named Mirko Englich, emerged as Krazed Weiner Dog. My own name, incidentally, was The Great Cross Dresser.
Sadly, such diversions will not be available much longer. This week, the International Olympic Committee announced that Graeco-Roman wrestling, one of the founding sports of the modern Olympiad, was to be removed from the mix. From 2020 there will be no idle moments in sweaty bouts for reporters to check out their wrestling name. The sport is to be cast to the boondocks alongside other former stalwarts of the Games, such as tug of war and live pigeon shooting. And those of us who were there in the Excel Arena last year, watching hour upon hour of hairy men scrabbling around on the floor in what, to the uninitiated, looked like the audition process for Brokeback Mountain, can only mourn its demise.
There must be a reason for one of the most unhappy decisions taken by the IOC since it decided Berlin was a nice neutral venue for the 1936 Games. And you have to hope that such a misguided decree was not driven by the same confusion as had overwhelmed me as I arrived at the Excel. Because the fact is, Olympic wrestling is nothing to do with the hyper-charged, steroid-driven, make-believe of the WWE franchise.
Nor is it remotely connected to the quaint, Saturday tea-time broadcasts from Croydon Town Hall that many of us grew up with, the ones in which elderly ladies would sit ringside and take out their frustrations on the competitors, beating them with their umbrellas, probably the only time in the entire farrago in which a blow was genuinely landed.
Graeco-Roman bears about as much relation to those as Findus beef lasagne does to fillet steak. This is a proper sport, its other incarnations scripted sitcom. Indeed, chuck those glorying in names like The Undertaker or Giant Haystacks into a pursuit in which the drug testing is onerous, the costumes restricted to a lycra one-piece and items of metal furniture are not casually left littering the ringside for the competitors to hit each other round the head with, and how they would flounder.
How would Big Daddy have coped, you wonder, with the convention that, every so often, with the action seemingly stalled, the referee stops a fight, dips his hand into a velvet bag, extracts a coloured ball and instructs one of the contenders to go down on all fours in the middle of the ring, while the other stalks round him looking for an opening? But that's Graeco-Roman, the only sport in which assuming the position is integral to the action. And from 2020 it will be no more. A victim, seemingly, of its failure to deliver a television audience.
True, the novice viewer may not fully appreciate the subtleties of the manner in which one competitor grabs the other around the waist while apparently seeking to bury his head between his buttocks, but there is a purity about it. As those of us last summer watching Kazakhs with shoulders the width of wardrobes face off against jumbo-limbed Iranians soon came to realise, this is a physical contest of the most primal kind: two blokes of similar size grapple and the strongest wins. It is as beautifully simple as that.
But sadly, in the modern era of the Games, it is television that matters. As far as wrestling is concerned, the fact that what works on the small screen is the pantomime version of WWE, the socially awkward 13-year-old's viewing of choice, has determined the real thing's Olympic exile.
Graeco-Roman was never going to bring the sort of audience delivered by its brash offspring. So in its stead is to come either squash, or that long-standing pursuit of the traditionalist, roller-blading. Plus golf. Thanks to its financial muscle, golf will be in the Olympic program from 2016.
Television is now the unrelenting paymaster of the Games. And much as the romantics among us may hanker after minority pursuits like wrestling, more people will no doubt tune in to watch Rory McIlroy swing. Or, as wrestlingname.com insists he should be known, The Fighting Irish.
London Daily Telegraph