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Foley: What wrestling means to the world

T.R. Foley

2/15/2013
T.R. Foley, InterMat Senior Writer
foley@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @trfoley

Indian wrestlers outside their Guru Kalwa akhara in Taj Gangaghat, India


Wrestling is an inextricable aspect of the human experience. We are born a ball of fleshy mush and spend much of the next 80 years sharpening our mental and physical capabilities. That growth never comes easy. We struggle with the multiplication table, foreign languages and improving our health. There's a consistent tug between what is capable and what is possible and until we reach our potential we are left to labor for our wants and needs.

The sport of wrestling is the most direct representation of that most human struggle.

Indian women gathering to watch women's wrestling at a tournament in Dwarka, India on Saturday, Feb. 10
The members of the IOC committee that voted to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Olympics aren't your typical citizens of the world. Most are Western European pseudo-diplomats with glimmers of grandeur and the shine of champagne-soaked crystal blinding them to the upside of struggle. To them wrestling is violence and barbarism, a sport rendered useless by the comforts of modernity. Many on the committee were coddled inside a womb of opportunity. They've progressed through nepotism, manipulation and bribery to become cake eaters with their hands on the controls of the world's most important sporting event.

What the cake eaters can't purchase is the experience of knowing wrestling's worldwide appeal and that the sport's importance lays beyond their contrived metrics of viewership and revenue. Wrestling is more than a set of numbers. It can help influence the social balance of Third World countries, promote equal rights for women, and give ethnic minorities and chance to receive the political patronage necessary for advancement.

A wrestler churns up his pit to prepare for the next traditional Kushti practice
Though soccer is currently more popular, wrestling is the most widely participated sport in the history of the world. Despite what anyone writes there is no birthdate for wrestling, no single moment when one society can claim to have created the sport or have delivered it to another country. Adventurers for the National Geographic Society spent the majority of the 19th century reporting back on societies previously unknown to the world. Their journals are brimming with African, Amazonian and island cultures that celebrated wrestling and used it as a form of conflict resolution, social pruning and celebrations of strength and courage. Find a map, throw a dart and you'll hit a country, tribe, or ethnic group with its own wrestling style. Wrestling has been discovered on all seven continents.

Culture to culture wrestling has survived dictatorship, plague, and the invasion of foreign armies. The Turkish Oil wrestling festival of Kirkipinar is the longest consecutively held athletic event in recorded human history, with 667 consecutive contests. But now the sport of wrestling might have an expiration date thanks to the fish-handed, bribe-taking pseudo-intellectuals and their ilk that would rather preserve a contrived competition of Lords and Barons than the first sport of mankind.

Though it's Olympic Wrestling that stands to lose its competition, the ripples will potentially decimate what remains of the world's traditional wrestling styles. Countries and cultures with powerful wrestling traditions use those traditions as concentrated examples of their culture's values, tastes, religious preferences and a multitude of other important expressions. Losing the Olympics threatens these traditions by sending the message that the world is in favor of blanching cultures in favor of modernity's leisure activities. We've seen modern wants trump societal needs in America. Title IX might have been the legislative right hook that staggered the wrestling community, but it's an American culture feverish for spectacle over substance that has allowed wrestling, a sport seen as barbaric and violent, to be almost knocked out in favor of football, a sport actually barbaric and violent.

Chinese wrestlers watch as Foley battles in traditional shuaijiao in Xinzhou
Traditional wrestling isn't well known to Americans, making it difficult to understand and support. Until two years ago it was a mystery to me as well. My perspective changed in 2010 when I traveled to a village in Northern Vietnam and discovered a vibrant wrestling tradition that took place in the dirt. The next year I spent several months in China and Mongolia and was fortunate to practice and enter traditional tournaments. Wrestling has always been my passion as a competitor, but with traditional wrestling I soon became a conservationist and experiential journalist.

To help document my experiences I established the website WrestlingRoots.org. Within weeks I was receiving emails from around the world, each with a passionate explanation of their culture's traditional style. I fell deeper into study and eventually established an emerging non-profit organization called The Wrestling Roots Foundation (WRF). There's no corporation behind the project (we're still waiting on our NFP status), but with my co-executive director Mark Lovejoy we actively share our information about traditional wrestling across the website, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The WRF's mission statement is "To document and promote traditional wrestling styles from around the world."

Marigold and dandelion wreaths are handed out to special guests who win their matches. Foley spent an hour shaking hands with fans after the match
I learned of the IOC's decision to drop wrestling on the day I left India after a week of training, studying and reporting about traditional kushti wrestling. I'll be writing articles for several outlets about my time at various events, but balanced against the IOC's decision, my time in India clarified the largest danger behind the elimination of wrestling on the international stage. Cancelling the Olympics for wrestlers is pulling a thread that will unravel more than just the dreams of Olympic-level wrestlers, or the eliminating the history of these historically relevant wrestling styles, it will also cause permanent damage the equality campaigns of disenfranchised peoples all around the world.

For women in Mongolia, wrestling has been a method for capturing social equality. While in the country I visited Tsetserleg, the capital city of Arhangai, a state in the center of the country. Arhangai is the countryside home to The Citadel wrestler Turtogtokh and he'd invited to join him in competing at a local summer wrestling tournament called Naadam. On arrival I was sent to the sports hall to ask for permission to enter. Inside the building photographs of the areas famous wrestlers hung inside, some wearing traditional Mongolian wrestling outfits belying their success in the fields, while former Olympians were in singlets. The most impressive boasting was a 20-foot banner hanging on the walls outside complex with a large photograph of Battsetseg a 2010 World champion from Tsetserleg. Battsetseg is a woman. She later won bronze at the 2012 Olympics.

Mongolian wrestling is tightly connected to the animal kingdom. After a win Foley engages in the celebratory and respectful eagle dance
Mongolia is still learning how to deal with women in a modern society. Women are the majority of the modern workforce and deal with a male population that is estimated to be hampered by a rate of alcoholism nearing forty percent. The females run businesses and the household, but earning respect in the media and among the men has always been difficult. The success of Battsetseg and other women wrestlers gives the girls of the country something to admire and becomes a point of pride among women. Men also seem to think that their accomplishments are noteworthy. In Mongolia Olympic medals matter. Wrestling is at the center of their sporting culture, and losing the chance to impress with their on-mat heroics eliminates a powerful vehicle for equality.

Two female wrestlers are competing at the "All India Women's Wrestling Association" in Dwarka
India is still reeling from the brutal rape and murder of "Damini" on a Delhi bus earlier this year. Women are largely treated poorly, with more than 100k dowry murders committed every year with few, if any, prosecuted. Men's wrestling has recently earned accolades through the accomplishments of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt and after the bus incident both acted quickly to provide more funding to women's wrestling teams to help promote the idea of equality for women in India. The response has been tremendous. Women wrestlers are cutting their hair shorter and wearing western outfits. They swagger like the men and though they've yet to place at the Olympics, success is/was only a matter of time. In a country starved for Olympic medals tens of thousands of women would have earned the respect of their male counterparts by just putting forth the effort on behalf of their countrymen.

Ethnic tensions are also being solved through wrestling. After the split from Sudan, the tribes of South Sudan fell into score settling and in-fighting that looked to hamper the development of the new nation. Cattle rustling, rape and murder were common occurrences between several tribes. Wrestling is the national sport of South Sudan so the WRF recently submitted a proposal for funding that would assist the financial needs of the South Sudanese Wrestling League in their bid to host an annual wrestling tournament aimed at peace. The SSWL had previously held a tournament and invited warring tribes to participate in a traditional Sudanese-style wrestling tournament. Because of the distances many had to travel that year to compete, warring tribes were forced to join camps. Women who'd lost their husbands to the fighting were now cooking meals to the men who very well may have been responsible. In the year following that event the crime rate between the tribes was reduced to zero. Not only is there no more crime between the tribes, the star wrestlers have even been asked to visit other tribes to show their moves and train.

Olympic wrestling, traditional wrestling, or head locking your cousin at Thanksgiving, wrestling connects people through physical forms of communication, and when the spoken word is impossible or inadequate. The wrestling community in America is criticized for being disparate and regionalized in times of crisis, but at the individual level we consistently behave as a brotherhood (Ever given the underhook-to-Russian welcoming to an old wrestler buddy?). That same level of camaraderie extends to the international scene. The Olympics are the world's biggest stage for cross-cultural communication, and nothing is more personal and meaningful than wrestling. Swimming and running are both sports with which humans participate, but their individual sports without interaction.

Foley receives celebratory cake from an official at the Tsetserleg Naadam in July of 2011
Wrestling is the world's purest social sport. Sharing sweat and blood is the quickest passageway to mutual respect. I've seen it in every country I've visited. The hosts invariably make me the guest of honor at tournaments and though each time I'm expecting to be booed for winning or laughed at for losing, I'm always applauded and made to feel like a hero. I compete with all my strength and for that fans will kiss my face, shake my hand, take hundreds of photos and even pay me money. They want to show their gratitude for choosing to experience part of their culture, and showing courage against their wrestlers. It might be a modest level of international diplomacy, but it's an effective and substantial reason for keeping the sport as a part of the Olympic Games. Certainly no other sport, not even the worldwide phenomenon of modern pentathlon can claim the same social consequences.

Wrestling is the purest form of sport and the root of all other competition. A match for superiority over yourself and an opponent is the starting block for games like Kabbadi, which uses compact geographical areas as part of a multi-person running and wrestling game. Kabbadi and its cousins developed into larger format games like rugby, which used idols and geography as the representation of control and power. Eventually those games were spun, twisted and manifested into contests like soccer, tennis, football and even table tennis. All were derived from wrestling.

Foley wins his challenge match at the dangal in Paschim Vihar, New Delhi
The reaction to the IOC's decision has focused on the poor leadership of FILA, the corruption of the IOC and the overall idiocy of removing one of the original sports. Others have mentioned that ratings and sponsorships aren't wholly competitive with other sports. Those things might matter for the bullshit metrics, but maybe these virtuosos of social engineering and management should attempt to quantify the loss of human experience likely to be felt by eliminating the world's most important wrestling competition. What about the girls living in squalor in India hoping that they can struggle to become an Olympic champion and a national hero? What about curtailing violence in areas of tribal conflict? Can trampoline replace the role of wrestling on the Mongolian steppe?

Maybe this elimination is all about the quantitative shortcoming of wrestling, but there are meaningful qualitative consequences to consider. As of now the IOC has decided to snuff out centuries of rich traditions so that a few ethnocentric elitists in Western Europe can enjoy a vintage bottle of champagne and congratulate themselves for doing exactly the opposite of their charge.

Comments

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Bigwilly152 (1) about 1 year ago
Awesome article. Enjoyed reading.

On a lighter note though, PLEASE tell me they let you keep that ridicoulous mongolian get-up!
dkman610 (1) about 1 year ago
Good job Mr. Foley!
gutfirst (1) about 1 year ago
tr,

the strong tradition of wrestling is what will sustain it if we focus on the sport for the sport. the only way not being in the olympics hurts wrestling is if supporters of wrestling pine for participation in an event that doesn't want us. aren't wrestlers supposed to be strong of heart, body and mind. let's be strong enough to remember we don't need to olympics to find out who the best freestyle and greco wrestlers are in the world each year and the traditional wrestlers never needed the olympics anyway.
trfoley (1) about 1 year ago
This isn't the school dance and we aren't a pimply-faced kid. Olympics validate and the event DOES want us, it's eight guys from Western Europe who don't. Traditional wrestling has survived traditional threats, but nothing is more devastating than modernity. Without the Olympics, funding that cross supports will disappear.
gutfirst (1) about 1 year ago
the olympics validating wrestling is a shame. wrestling is about me training and fighting to beat my opponent. the world championships give me a chance to find out if i did it it right every year.

with the olympics the rules will continue to change until the sport is something it should not be and opportunities to wrestle will dwindle when the ioc and fila reduce weight classes and styles. i can't understand how that is not the primary concern. it is way worse than no olympics.
Simon Phoenix (1) about 1 year ago
Gutfirst, please help me grasp your argument here. You are saying that the sport of wrestling is in a better position by not being part of the Olympics? Do you care to provide some substance to that argument?

Listen, with the exception of sports who have national leagues that are considered the standard of excellence, such as the NBA, kids do not lay awake at night dreaming of being qualifying for the 2023 World championships. The thought of Olympic Gold conjures the same thought in every single person's mind across the globe: pinnacle of success.

Wrestling is not about the fame, and anyone who has ever pulled the straps of a singlet over their shoulders knows that for a fact. I've seen junior-varsity high school football games broadcast on local cable television. You don't see television cameras broadcasting high school tournaments held in an auxiliary gym. This is not a problem for wrestlers, however, because all the blood, sweat, and tears occur to achieve the goal of having your hand raised after 6/7 minutes of battle. The lack of coverage is a problem when it comes to growth.

Any wrestler out there has had to face the stereotypes of wrestling from a young age: "Oh you like grinding with other sweaty men?" This is the problem with the severe lack of coverage of the sport of wrestling: people who have never seen it have no idea of what it is about. The Olympic stage gives wrestlers the opportunity to show the entire world why it is the greatest sport in the world. With television cameras broadcasting the images to hundreds of nations worldwide, wrestlers are able to display the sport at its best, captivating people not only foreign to the sport, but those who are huddled around the television in India, for example, who are putting their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of the individual(s) chosen to represent their country in this truly international sporting event.

Don't sit there behind your keyboard spewing hatred towards an event that inspires millions to reach their one life goal. If don't want to watch, that's fine. The sport of wrestling doesn't have time for your negativity, so take your false claims elsewhere.
gutfirst (1) about 1 year ago
simon,
not sure how close you are to the international styles and for how long. i've been involved at various levels in free and greco more closely than any other style of wrestling since the late 80's. this situation is more important to me than the casual fan.

i thought i was clear in the above post. the rules changes for free and greco have turned the sport into something most people who step away from wrestling for one cycle can't decipher. it's a fact that the ioc put pressure on fila to change the rules and, more tragically, reduce weight classes from 10 to 7. 30% less weight classes. that's nonsense. the international styles have been burdened because of the olympics. wrestling pandering to the ioc will certainly result in (since you asked, i'll repeat myself) more stupid rules, fewer weights and at some point fewer styles. i'm not being negative. i can't stand the thought of the elimination of a style or more weights. what do you think would happen if the ioc said "your back, pick one style?" that has been a threat to fila by the ioc in the past.

you foolishly accuse me of false claims. your mistaken. i, simply, think the sport is more important than the olympics.

the olympics are a motivation to be the best in the world. the world championships serve the same purpose. the main difference between the two events is other people's perception, and pomp and circumstance.
Subhash Bhagwat (1) about 1 year ago
I can vouch for a number of social, physical, mental and political benefits of wrestling from my home state of Maharashtra, India. In the 17th century, when India was being rampaged by Muslim invaders, a religious philosopher and saint, Ramdas, traveled across the state to establish wrestling Akhadas, because wrestling strengthens mind and body, promotes social cohesion and awareness. Personal code of conduct was a highest priority. History is evidence that it was Maharashtra's tenacious resistance that saved India from the invaders and initiated their downfall. It did not, however, drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. They competed against as well as with each other. I am a member of a family of eight brothers, who all wrestled with more or less distinction. One of my brothers served as the chief coach at the National Institute of Sports at Patiala for a quarter century. His work laid the foundation for India's medals today. However, we also saw a social revolution in our lifetime. We broke the taboo that upper caste Brahmins were not to wrestle. We did. We practiced with all other castes and also had Muslim coaches and wrestlers in our Akhada. It weaved a camaraderie that transcended social boundaries.I commend you for speaking up against the debauchery of IOC and wish us all success.
JMHibert (1) about 1 year ago
Excellent Article!! It's good to hear that the fraternity of wrestlers I have experienced in the US exists worldwide.
wrestlergrrl (1) about 1 year ago
Thank you Mr Foley, what a great article. My first reaction at hearing the devastating news was purely emotional. I felt like the love of my life had just been condemned to die. People think I'm being melodramatic but that's how I feel. Wrestling is one of the few sports where we train with our opponents, where we make best friends to whom we can't even speak. I have a friend in Mongolia and I can't even pronounce her name. It ties people together through time and history (did you know that women in ancient Sparta also wrestled and boxed?) but also across geography and culture and any difference that you can imagine. I have hope because I know that there are millions of wrestlers around the world who feel exactly like me and will do whatever they have to do to keep wrestling rightfully in the Olympics as it has been for almost 3000 years. It is the most beautiful sport. It means more to me than just about anything in the world. Hopefully reason will prevail.
bigbaderik (1) about 1 year ago
Dear TR,

Thank you for your eloquent response! Removing wrestling and keeping curling, along with the specter of adding DARTS in 2020...this boggles my mind.

Wrestling was an obsession for me in high school, and it prepared me for a lifelong journey in the martial arts and CrossFit as an adult. The discipline and battles with my own ego were instrumental in all that I do now, and I am sure that millions of people all around the world have experienced the same growth from wrestling curriculums.

I am hoping that the uproar continues until the Olympic Committee seriously reconsiders.

Thanks,
Erik
silver-medal (1) about 1 year ago
Well said, Mr. Foley.
rizzo (1) about 1 year ago
Great article. Bottom line is that FILA had a colossal screw up here. Thankfully the Martinetti resigned.
jpk14 (1) about 1 year ago
Well said Tr. As with most of your writings, another great read. It is such a shame that the future of our sport will be so influenced by those who can never understand what this sport means to those who participate and give their all for it. Those who look at it as just another sport listed on a regimen will never understand how much it becomes a part of those who partake.

We must all stand together for a sport that already lacked notoriety and endures ridicule without this new set back and make sure it lives on, even without the promotion of the outside world and those who just don't get it.