Milo of Croton, Alexander Karelin and the Tragic Demise of Olympic Wrestling
Some competitions are primal—sport in the purest sense. They transcend culture, religion and geography. They hit us in our core, speak to our very soul. They are natural and intuitive.
No one has to teach kids how to run. It's inside of us, waiting to burst out.
Who is fastest? Who is strongest? Who can jump the farthest?
And who can throw the other guy down?
That's what makes the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop wrestling from the Olympic Games starting in 2020 so perplexing.
"This is not about what's wrong with wrestling," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the BBC. "But what is good for the Games."
And, yet, an Olympics without wrestling is almost unimaginable for anyone who has studied the history of the Games. Wrestling is universal. Every region, every ethnic group, every period of history has its own wrestling traditions.
We come together to celebrate these traditions every four years. It's been that way for 2,713 years. That's how long it has been since wrestling was added to a handful of footraces as the second competition in Olympic history.
These early wrestlers were a sight to behold. With no weight classes, the athletes were bulked up to a startling degree by a protein heavy diet. Milo of Croton, the most famed wrestler of all, was said to consume 20 pounds of meat a day.
At Olympia, the sixteen contestants had their hair cut short to escape the clutches of opponents; some wore leather skullcaps, clipped under the chin. Their bodies were oiled, but patted with colored powder to provide a good grip—the body palette ranged from yellow to orange, ochre, and brown—although some athletes secretly wiped an oily hand over a shoulder or thigh to skew an opponent's hold.
In these early days, like today's Greco-Roman wrestling, only holds above the waist were allowed. Leg trips, however, were permitted, as detailed by the great poet Homer in the Iliad. His description of a wrestling match between Ajax and Odysseus is, perhaps, the most widely read depiction of an athletic contest in the history of the western world:
Their backs creaked under the strain of their strong intertwined arms. Sweat poured down their bodies, and bloody welts rose up on their shoulders and ribs.
Suffice it to say, Homer never wrote about roller sports or sport climbing, two of the so-called sports that are in line to replace wrestling in the Olympic Games.
There is no Milo of Croton of squash, no Heracles. There's not even an Alexander Karelin, the Russian wrestler who was a four-time Olympian.
Karelin's strength was legendary. Born in the wastelands of Siberia, he built strength in his hands by rowing a wooden boat until they bled, built stamina by running like a wild beast through the frozen woods and could raise his leg straight over his head, an amazing show of flexibility for a man who stood 6'3" and weighed upwards of 300 pounds.
"I felt like a little kid when I wrestled him," 1984 Olympic Gold medalist Jeff Blatnick once told me. "Helpless."
Despite his three Olympic gold medals, Karelin's greatest challenge, his proudest athletic victory, was over a refrigerator, or so he told Time magazine. Sure, it weighed more than 500 pounds. And yes, he carried it, in a bear hug all by himself. But his greatest challenge?
Was the IOC right to do away with wrestling?
"It was a huge fridge," he recalled. "And I carried it to my apartment up eight flights of stairs."
There aren't characters like this in squash or wakeboarding—another sport set to be a wrestling killer. There can't be.
The world needs men like Alexander Karelin. We need legends who push the limits of what is possible.
In short, we need wrestling. And so does the Olympic Games.
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