New freshmen didn’t have much clout at the University of Illinois in Champaign when I was there. Among other things we had to register last, after everyone else had picked over the course offerings. That meant we got more than our share of undesirable classes, meaning those that began at 8 a.m. or 4 p.m.
We also had last crack at courses in P.E.-- short for physical education-- which every freshman and sophomore had to take. That was why I wound up taking wrestling in my first semester at the school, in the fall of 1955.
Wrestling was a drag from a couple of standpoints. One was that it was a sweaty and unwelcome intrusion on the school day. Another was that it was taught only at Men’s Old Gym (which we scholars naturally called Old Men’s Gym), on Springfield Avenue at the edge of the main campus.
My wrestling class met at 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On those days I also had a three o’clock class at Lincoln Hall, about three-quarters of a mile away, and the 15-minute class break allowed no time to shower. Once there I had to stew in my own juices, feeling about as welcome as a skunk.
The bad news continued on the Old Gym’s mats. You’d never guess it to see me now but I was a little guy as a frosh, standing about 5-feet-8 and weighing about 135 pounds. The next smallest kid in the class was a good 10 pounds heavier than I, and stronger. We were made workout partners, which meant that I spent just about every class with my head in his armpit or similarly offensive juncture as we acted out the moves of the sport. I counted the days until the end of the semester.
Near the end, though, a funny thing happened. The course’s finale was a tournament among the wrestling classes, and for the first time I got to fight people my own size. I won my first two matches with pins, got a decision in the third, and found myself in the finals of my weight group, one win from glory. Trouble was, the whole tournament took place the same day, and by match four I was pooped. I went for a quick pin and missed it, then was reversed and saw the lights myself.
Still, I came away from the experience with a tad more self-confidence than previously, and an understanding of and liking for real wrestling, as opposed to the theatrical variety. Once I got a sports column I devoted occasional but regular space to the sport, something few of my big-paper peers did. I got to know some of its top-level performers over five Olympiads and found them to be praiseworthy examples of the athletic virtues, and nice guys to boot. That was in keeping with my general observation that the more obscure the sport, the nicer the participants.
Wrestling isn’t important enough at U.S. colleges to justify institutional cheating, so the wrestlers I knew were or had been actual students. Most had occupational goals beyond their sport and one of them—the 1988 Olympian Jim Scherr—got to be CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 at age 42. Most could converse about things other than themselves, a rare attribute in jockdom.
That’s why I was dismayed in February when the International Olympic Committee voted to kick wrestling off the Olympic schedule after 2016. The grapplers had been part of the Games since 708 B.C., and longer if you include the tussles among the gods on the sacred Greek mountain. The sport is about as close to pure athletics as you can get and as democratic, pursued as it is by many thousands of people in hundreds of lands, including women since the start of the new century. That last thing is in contrast to such elite pastimes as sailing and dressage, which the titled (and entitled) twits who make up the IOC consider sacrosanct.
Wrestling can’t entirely plead not guilty to its exclusion. In recent years the sport has enacted so many scoring changes that even aficianados find it hard to follow, and high-level matches tend to be low-scoring and technical as evenly matched contestants maneuver for the tiny edge in leverage that can swing the outcome. Published accounts hint that its international leadership has been poor, meaning, I guess, that its honchos haven’t been kissing the right butts in Lausanne. If true that’s inexcusable. What else do those guys have to do?
Happily, the sport’s emergency has kicked its supporters into action, and the results have been impressive. Last month wrestlers from the U.S., Iran and Russia, showing amity notably lacking in other spheres, joined at the United Nations in New York to state wrestling’s case, and staged a well-attended exhibition the next day at Grand Central Station. Indeed, one of the best things about covering wrestling at the Olympics was seeing its audience of thick-necked types from usually hostile lands, including Cuba and North Korea in addition to the above-named three, joining in pursuit of non-lethal interests. It looked like the bar scene from “Star Wars” but was uplifting nonetheless.
Wrestling got a boost Wednesday when an IOC subcommittee voted to include it among the sports eligible to fill the schedule void left by its absence (goofy, huh?), but the final decision won’t come until the full committee meets in September. Sending wrestlers to clamp headlocks on IOC members might help persuade them to do the right thing, but putting together a bribe fund probably would help more.