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Editorial: Grappling With Folly

We’ll always remember where we were when the shocking news arrived that Rulan Gardner, the American wrestler, had defeated Alexander Karelin, a three-time gold medal winner from Russia, in the match that became known as the Miracle on the Mat during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

OK, not really. We wouldn’t know Gardner from Khasan Baroev, Jeff Blatnick or any other person who has distinguished himself by pinning people to a floor mat. In the future, however, we will remember how stunned we were when we learned last week that an Olympic committee had voted to drop wrestling from its lineup of sports.

Taking wrestling out of the Olympics is akin to ... well, it’s hard to think of something comparable. Removing horses from English fox hunts, from which foxes have already been banished? Drumming from pow-wows? Haggis from Robert Burns’ celebrations? Well, banishing haggis from any festivity might not be a mistake.

The point is that traditions can withstand only so much change before they become unrecognizable and lose all connection to the past, which, of course, is one reason why traditions are important to human beings. The Olympics are supposed to have significance beyond providing lucrative content for television: The games showcase the world’s best athletes and serve as a reminder that competition ultimately can be a unifying force. The value of regularly gathering athletes from far-flung places for an intense period of competition traces back to ancient Greece. The Olympic sports that have the strongest connections to the ancient games are those that test the basic athletic skills of speed, endurance and strength. That would include wrestling, which puts two people in a small space and declares the one who subdues the other as the winner — a fairly straightforward measure of strength and technique. Wrestling may not have the international cachet of, say, skiing or soccer, but it is a competition understood and appreciated by young boys around the world, particularly those with brothers.

None of which impressed the executive board of the International Olympic Committee, which voted to drop the sport from the 2020 summer games. The fact that the sport can be traced to the Olympics staged in 708 B.C. — and to the first modern Olympics in 1896 — apparently had less significance to the board than a ranking system it concocted to determine which events should be kept in the lineup. If you guessed that TV ratings and tickets sales were among the 39 criteria used in that system, you guessed right. If you also guessed that wrestling was sacrificed in part to reserve room for a competition known as the modern pentathalon (a “sport” that combines fencing, riding, swimming, running and shooting), you have a good grasp of the thinking of the Olympic minds, excuse the expression. Or you are aware that a couple of well-connected advocates of modern pentathalon had seats on the executive board. Not to worry, though, such traditional sports as kayak slaloming and synchronized swimming are not in jeopardy, as far as we know.

We do not pretend to suggest that, come 2020, we will find ourselves pining for a classic Azerbaijani-Bulgarian match on the mats. We do think, however, that an Olympics that is missing one of its oldest sports will be an event that has strayed not just from its roots, but also from its organizers’ professed mission of staging a competition that aims to be more than just a commercial hit.