Olympic wrestling star Cael Sanderson woke up Tuesday morning to news that seemed too shocking to process: wrestling would no longer be an Olympic sport.
Sanderson's disbelief quickly turned to resolve. He and his high-profile counterparts in the U.S. have vowed to fight to keep wrestling a part of the Olympics.
"I don't think I've really accepted it yet," said Sanderson, who is also the coach of the two-time NCAA national champion Penn State. "I'll absolutely do everything in my power to make sure that the decision doesn't go through and it isn't finalized in the fall. This is a big deal. You're talking about your kids having that dream of winning a gold medal. It inspires you to be better, to work hard, to set goals."
International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games on Tuesday. The move is set to take effect for the 2020 Olympics and eliminates a sport that has been a staple of both the ancient and modern games. Though wrestling's chances of making it back onto the Olympic program by 2020 are considered slim, the sport has two chances left to stop the drop.
Wrestling was voted out from a final group that also included modern pentathlon, taekwondo and field hockey, officials familiar with the vote told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the voting details were not made public.
But the IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Wrestling will now join a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu — all of which are vying for a single opening in 2020.
According to former Olympic champion and current Iowa coach Tom Brands, the international wrestling community needs to band together and fight for the sport's Olympic future.
"You have to get people behind you, you have to do it smart," he said. "You have to do it educated, you have to do it professionally, and you have to do it with some muscle, as well."
The decision by the IOC to phase out wrestling will leave the U.S. without one of its most successful Olympic sports. The only sports in which the Americans have won more medals than wrestling is swimming and track and field — and those two have far more medal opportunities.
Americans have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, by far the most of any nation. Though the U.S. had slipped in recent Olympic cycles, it bounced back with a pair of London Games gold medalists in Jordan Burroughs — possibly the best wrestler in the world — and Jake Varner.
Wrestling is also one of the most popular youth sports in the U.S. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that the sport was sixth among prep boys with nearly 275,000 competing in 2010-11.
"It just made me sick to think that the opportunity for 14, 15, 16-year-old kids who have thoughts about being an Olympic champion is erased," Oklahoma State coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist John Smith said. "I was on the phone a lot (Tuesday) with not just people in this country, but all over the world. We're all ready to stand together."
Reaction to the move was swift on social media. A Facebook page titled 'Keep Wrestling in the Olympics" was started Tuesday morning and had nearly 34,000 likes by the end of the day. A number of fellow Olympians also displayed their displeasure over the decision on Twitter by using the hashtag (hash)SaveOlympicWrestling.
"I think it says that they made a mistake, and there's no doubt about that," Brands said about the outcry to keep Olympic wrestling. "You don't want to pick a fight with a wrestler."
The process to eliminate wrestling has left many in the U.S. shaking their heads.
The IOC board voted after reviewing a report by its program commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. But the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.
Former U.S. Olympic champion Kurt Angle, a professional wrestler for the last seven years with TNA Wrestling, said he's hopeful that TNA and WWE wrestling can team up with USA Wrestling to help make a push to save the sport's inclusion. The one thing everyone associated with American wrestling seems to agree on is that the sport's elimination from the Olympics would be a major blow — one they vow to fight for as long as they have to.
"The Americans have been such a big success. I'm hoping the IOC doesn't have something against the American community," Angle said. "This is hard. This is going to hurt college programs. This is going to hurt MMA. Most of all, it's going to affect all those kids, the dreams of wanting to be an Olympic champion. I think everybody's in shock."
AP Sports Writers Genaro Armas in State College, Pa. and Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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