Upon hearing the news that his sport had been voted out of the Olympics, Brandon Paulson did the first thing that came to mind Tuesday. He went to the Pinnacle wrestling gym in Shoreview, the place where he trains current and future Olympians, and got on the mat for the first time in more than a year.
During a meeting Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee's executive board voted to cut wrestling from the program for the 2020 Summer Games -- and Paulson needed an outlet for the anger he felt.
"I'm still in a state of shock,'' said Paulson, an Anoka native and silver medalist in the 114.5-pound Greco-Roman class at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. "I looked at my phone [Tuesday morning] and got a text about it. I read the story, and it was like an April Fool's joke. I was sick to my stomach.''
In Minnesota, where the sport has long thrived, and around the globe wrestlers and coaches shared Paulson's reaction. Ali Bernard of New Ulm, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, said she is worried what it will mean for the future of the sport. Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson, a 1972 Olympian in Greco-Roman, believes the outrage generated in the 180 countries that are members of wrestling's international federation will cause the IOC to reinstate it.
The IOC will add one sport later this year, as part of a process to "renew and renovate'' the Olympic program. Wrestling will join seven others -- baseball and softball, wakeboarding, sport climbing, squash, roller sports, karate and wushu, a Chinese martial art -- that have applied for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games. That will be decided in September, but experts on the IOC said Tuesday it is unlikely that wrestling would be added back so quickly.
Paulson said his cathartic wrestling match reinforced the passion he holds for a sport whose roots go back to the ancient Olympic Games. He and other Minnesotans said the very nature of the sport assures it will not go down without a fight, one they plan to join.
"The whole wrestling world was caught off guard by this,'' he said. "But I'm motivated to keep fighting for this sport. So many guys have that Olympic dream. I hope that isn't gone.''
A true stunner
Most observers believed modern pentathlon would be cut to make way for a new sport at the 2020 Summer Games, which will be held in Madrid, Tokyo or Istanbul. Modern pentathlon -- which entered the Olympics in 1912 and was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics -- was spared amid intense lobbying.
Local wrestlers and coaches said they had no idea their sport was in any danger. University of Iowa coach Tom Brands said there had been "warning signs'' in the past and that officials "could have controlled this to some degree,'' though he declined to elaborate. IOC board members were given a report on each Olympic sport detailing criteria such as TV ratings, ticket sales and global popularity, then voted by secret ballot.
Wrestling's elimination came as a surprise because of its Olympic heritage and its widespread participation across countries and cultures. According to FILA, its international governing body, wrestling was part of the ancient Olympics as early as 708 B.C. and was among the nine sports included in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling have been on the Olympic program since 1920, and women's wrestling was added in 2004.
At the 2012 Games, 71 countries participated in wrestling, with medalists from nations as diverse as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Iran, India and North Korea. The U.S. has won 125 Olympic medals in wrestling.
Chas Betts of St. Michael, who competed in Greco-Roman wrestling at the London Games, retired from competition and just took a job with a new wrestling club in St. Paul. His brother, Parker, is training in the U.S. Olympic Committee's Greco-Roman program at Northern Michigan University and has hopes of making the 2020 team.
"2016 is a possibility for [Parker], but 2020 is more likely,'' Betts said. "Now you'll have to put all your eggs in one basket, because 2016 might be it. I feel sad for every guy who's still training and for all the kids who have been inspired by watching the Olympics.''
Bernard said the Olympics are a major draw for young wrestlers, and she is concerned over how its exclusion might affect participation.
"Little basketball players can dream of the NBA,'' she said. "For wrestlers, the Olympics are the big goal. It's huge, and without it, the sport might struggle.''
In a statement, FILA said it was "greatly astonished'' at the decision. It will make a presentation to the IOC in May, and USA Wrestling -- the sport's national governing body -- created a Facebook page called "Keep Wrestling in the Olympics" that had more than 25,000 "likes'' by 5 p.m. Tuesday. The 24 petitions created on the change.org website had gathered more than 10,000 signatures in the first few hours.
Robinson said he believes Russia and other former members of the Soviet bloc -- who earn a large share of Olympic wrestling medals -- will lobby hard for reinstatement.
"There's going to be blowback,'' Robinson said. "I think it will work its way out and [wrestling] will be back in.''
Bernard said the passion and fellowship of the wrestling community -- and its willingness to do battle, on and off the mat -- give the sport a chance.
"Wrestlers are fighters,'' Bernard said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep our sport in. We're going to fight back.''