JIM PETERS: Wrestling coaches stunned, saddened by Olympics ouster

2013-02-14T17:00:00Z 2013-02-15T01:51:03Z JIM PETERS: Wrestling coaches stunned, saddened by Olympics ousterJim Peters Times Columnist nwitimes.com
February 14, 2013 5:00 pm  • 

When Leroy Vega first heard the news, he thought it was a joke.

So did Scott Vlink.

Unfortunately, there's no punch line for their sport of wrestling. The International Olympic Committee has voted to remove it from the lineup in 2020.

"As a kid growing up, my dream was to be an Olympian," said Vega, Portage's coach, who was ranked third in his weight class on the Olympic ladder in 2004.

"It's what inspired me to keep wrestling. It makes me think, what if this had happened when I was younger? Would I be where I am today? It blows my mind. I can't imagine a world without Olympic wrestling."

Wrestling in the Olympics dates back to the start of the modern games in 1896. It was also the first sport that didn't involve running to be added to the Games in ancient Greece in 700 B.C.

"It's synonymous with the Olympics," Merrillville coach David Maldonado said. "To take that history and tradition and throw it to the side, it's sad. Where are we going as a society? I've always thought it was something sacred. I was almost sick to my stomach to hear it."

Chalk up another victim to the commercialization of athletics, a trend that is altering the face of the Games, once considered the last bastion of amateur sports.

The Olympics are no longer about the true spirit of competition. They're about what can generate the most cash.

"My first thought was, what have the Olympics become?" said Vlink, the Crown Point coach. "It's about making money, marketability. They're replacing a relatively obscure sport with something that has more mass appeal. I'm sorry, but golf is not the Olympics. It's an absolute shame."

The beauty of the Games once lied in that dream of Vega's. For so many athletes, it was the be all, end all. There was no prospect of making millions of dollars. It was all about the years of commitment to represent your country on a world stage and vying for that most precious prize.

Vega remembered a camp back in 1998 at the University of Minnesota that featured Olympic wrestler Brandon Paulson. Campers sat in wide-eyed awe of his silver medal.

"I have a 2-year-old son and it's hard for me to understand how he's not going to have the opportunity to have the same dreams I had," Vega said. "That's been taken away. I don't know what's going to happen to our youth program in the next 10, 15 years."

The IOC's move isn't a pin to wrestling's future, but it's definitely in a headlock.

It will now join seven other sports -- baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wake boarding and wushu (a martial art) -- in applying for a single opening in 2020.

Wake boarding? Roller sports? Sport climbing? Really?

"You've got all these other sports and wrestling's the one you want to get rid of?" Maldonado said.

Vlink holds out hope that the uproar prompted by the decision and the discourse that's to follow will change some minds, though he's not optimistic.

"The trickle-down effect is unpredictable, but it couldn't be good," Vlink said. "How are people going to view wrestling? If it's not 'worthy' of being part of the Olympics, then what's the purpose?"

If the sport is going to be dropped, Maldonado said its top voices won't let it go down quietly.

Even if it is, he believes the wrestling world is resilient enough to find a way to persevere.

"The culture we have, it's the culture of a fighter," Maldonado said. "They picked the wrong group of guys to pick on. They're not just going to go down. Wrestling will survive. I don't see it dying out any time soon."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at jim.peters@nwi.com.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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