When wrestling was dropped from the Olympics in 2013, Dan Chandler knew everyone associated with the sport would fight for a reversal. What the Minneapolis coach and three-time Olympian didn't expect, though, was the outpouring of support from folks who couldn't tell Greco-Roman from freestyle.
Everywhere he went, he saw anger and shock that a sport so closely identified with the ancient Olympics could be cut loose from the modern Summer Games. ''Even taxi drivers were talking to me about it," Chandler said. "We never got so much publicity. And I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is a blessing in disguise.'"
That near-death experience led to reforms that earned wrestling an Olympic reprieve — and made it a better sport in the process. Some of those changes, including new rules designed to make the sport more exciting and easier for spectators to follow, will be on display Saturday and Sunday at the U.S. Olympic trials in Iowa City.
More than a dozen Minnesotans will be among the 236 wrestlers competing to make the Olympic team in Greco-Roman, men's freestyle and women's freestyle. Jordan Holm of Golden Valley, the nation's top-ranked Greco-Roman wrestler at 85 kilograms, said fans will see more dynamic and higher-scoring matches. The revised rules favor more aggressive athletes, as stalling now is penalized and wrestlers must work to earn every advantage.
Many of the most important advances have happened off the mat. After the executive board of the International Olympic Committee recommended in February 2013 to drop wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, the sport's international governing body — long viewed as corrupt and intransigent — brought in new leadership and overhauled its structure. The effort to modernize and improve the sport has continued, even after the IOC voted to reinstate it six months later.
A needed wake-up call
Chandler, Holm and others agreed that wrestling is in a much better place as the Rio Olympics approach. Still, they cautioned that passivity must remain as unwelcome in wrestling's boardrooms as it is in bouts.
"We needed that wake-up call from the IOC ," said Holm, who has advocated for ongoing reform as a member of several USA Wrestling committees. "We had to adjust with the times, and this was great for our sport in the end.
"But we can't just say, 'Well, we made it back into the Olympics. We can rest easy now.' There have been steps in the right direction, but it needs to keep moving forward."
The U.S. led a worldwide movement to get wrestling back into the Olympics, with citizens and celebrities donating much of the $2 million spent in the American effort. Chandler, coach of the Minnesota Storm club and a seven-time U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman coach, helped develop the new rules.
Matches now consist of two three-minute periods, with a 30-second break in between, and scoring is cumulative. The previous format was a best-of-three, with three two-minute periods that were scored individually. The reforms also reduced the number of men's weight classes by one in each style and expanded women's wrestling from four classes to six.
The cumulative scoring encourages wrestlers to try for points throughout the match, rather than stalling to protect a lead. Longer periods enable athletes to develop strategy. Being passive draws a warning and can result in a point awarded to the opponent, and takedowns are worth more points.
Brandon Paulson of Anoka, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman who now coaches for the Storm, said the changes are good for American wrestlers who tend to be better conditioned. Since the rules went into effect in 2013, he has seen more action in many matches.
"It makes it easier for people to understand," Paulson said. "You go out, you score the most points and you win. Guys are just going out and wrestling, and it's a better product than it was four years ago."
Stability needed, too
Paulson hopes the rules remain relatively stable, believing that frequent changes in recent years have made it too hard for spectators to keep up. He favors continuing evolution in other areas, urging United World Wrestling — the new name for the sport's international governing body — to expand on the marketing, traditional media and social media initiatives begun in 2013.
Holm said the sport needs to do a better job of promoting its athletes and turning its major competitions into big events. He pointed to last fall's world championships, which reflected the flash and dazzle of its host city — Las Vegas — and played to sellout crowds.
The Rio Olympics, Paulson said, will play an important part in moving wrestling forward. He believes the sport needs to expand its fan base, and wrestling as a whole would benefit if the U.S. team can put on the kind of show that grabs the American media spotlight.
That is the goal, Holm said, and it begins Saturday at the Olympic trials.
"We need to be forward-thinking," he said. "We can't be comfortable with where we are."