Monday, August 25, 2008

OW! I've blown my toes off.

The Olympics are over. For two weeks we viewed sports we only see every four years and learned the names or stories of great athletes who normally toil in anonymity. Several sports gained new fans and new participants. The best American wrestling could do during the past fortnight was shoot itself in the foot.

The story that got the most media coverage had nothing to do with the Olympics. It was discovered that two University of Nebraska wrestlers had been paid to pose nude for a website that caters to gay men. Neither young man broke the law – nor did they do anything that countless college cheerleaders haven’t done over the years in Playboy “Girls of the Pac Ten” spreads. However, since they did violate the “code of conduct” clauses in their scholarship agreements, Husker wrestling coach, Mark Manning, removed them from the team.

In the end, they did more to hurt themselves than they did to harm the sport. Oh sure, the story probably generated some snickering, but it will pass.

Meanwhile – back in Beijing – Henry Cejudo won a freestyle gold medal at 55 kilos (121.5 lbs). He was a joy to watch. Henry’s story is compelling. The son of undocumented immigrants, Henry’s mother worked multiple jobs keeping food on the table for her family. A four-time high school state champion (two in Arizona and two in Colorado), Henry eschewed the traditional American wrestling career path of continuing to wrestle folkstyle in college before entering the international arena. Instead, he went directly to the Olympic Training Center to concentrate on freestyle. At 21, he became the youngest American to ever win an Olympic freestyle gold.

Surely Cejudo’s success is exempt from my contention that American wrestling “shot itself in the foot”. Wrong. In a post-medal interview, Henry admitted that he had to lose 10 pounds in an hour and a half to “make weight”. When asked how he did it he replied, “Sauna, plastics (suit)…”.

That’s not all. Greco-Roman wrestler, T.C. Danzler, acknowledged that his performance may have been negatively impacted by the amount of weight he had to lose before competing. Finally, Daniel Cormier was hospitalized because his efforts to make weight led to kidney malfunction. Cormier was forced to withdraw from the Olympics.

This is where the toes disappeared.

Youth participation in wrestling has grown steadily, albeit slowly, since the mid ‘90s. That fact is frequently quoted – sometimes when arguing against the elimination of college wrestling programs and sometimes just to put a good face on the sport. What is less frequently mentioned is that high school wrestling lost 150,000 participants between 1977 and 1995. After 13 years of steady climbing, there are still 100,000 fewer high school wrestlers today than in the 1976-77 school year.

Unhealthy weight loss practices contributed to the decline. The perception that these practices still exist at the youth and high school levels are a major roadblock in the efforts to return wrestling to the popularity it once held. It doesn’t really matter that weight loss practices for young athletes are far more stringently monitored now – because the public still perceives “making weight” negatively. Those beliefs could have only been reinforced by the happenings in Beijing.

Even when discussing “marketing” or “promotion” or “growth”, wrestling tends to look inward too much. Many wrestlers and ex-wrestlers read the previous paragraph and thought something like, “Sucking weight is a part of wrestling. If you’ve ever wrestled, you understand that.” Well – I have never wrestled – and neither have most mothers – and they will have a major influence on wrestling’s future. Moms approve, support and – sometimes – determine their kids’ extracurricular activities. Right now, “Mom” thinks wrestling is unhealthy. Our Olympic athletes just told her so.

Wrestling is trying too hard to be an exclusive fraternity. Sons wrestle because their dads wrestled. Big brother wrestles, so little brother does, too. There’s an initiation – complete with hazing and the weight loss ritual. If you don’t “get it” – do something else. Well – that’s not an attitude that will lead to growth.

So what do we do? First, let’s all (wrestlers, coaches and fans) stop talking about weight loss like it is second only to winning a championship in importance. I’ve been just as guilty of this as everyone else – frequently posting my admiration for the way 3X Hawkeye All-American and 1996 NCAA champion, Daryl Weber, cut to 142 to “help the team”.

Second – add a “parent recruiting” element to participation growth plans. Let parents know that there are rules in place to protect the health of their children. More than that – work just as hard to sell parents on the sport as we do the potential participants.

Finally - let’s get more positive images of the sport out into the world. Let’s talk more about Anthony Robles and Dr. Norman Borlaug and Doug Zembiec. And let’s talk about Henry Cejudo’s gold medal – not his weight loss.

1 comment:

Gantry said...

Agreed completely, wrestling has to lose the "old guard" mentality and keep branching out to new participants and especially new parents.

It's almost like we don't want outsiders to "get wrestling" sometimes, to keep the club exclusive. This mentality has to change. Great points...