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The Sports Guy: International decision resonates locally

This was not the sort of publicity the sport wanted.

Unless you’ve managed to avoid a sports broadcast in the last 36 hours or so, you’ve probably heard the news. The International Olympic Committee made a preliminary decision to pull wrestling from its roster of sports offered in the Summer Games, starting in the year 2020. One of the original sports offered in the ancient (and modern) Olympic games was unexpectedly dealt the axe.

The good news is that wrestling, a sport that’s already been fighting for its life in some sectors of the nation, has received more attention in the last two days in the United States than it has probably received in the previous two months. When you stop and think about it, though, you can see that’s precisely part of the problem.

After all, the last two months have comprised the bulk of the 2012-2013 collegiate wrestling season. But go on a Yahoo search for wrestling and you will be besieged by a list of links to that testosterone-driven soap opera masquerading under the moniker of professional wrestling, or ‘rasslin’ as I’ve always been fond of calling it to avoid misunderstandings between true sport and pure showbiz.

Search for wrestling news on Yahoo! and you’ll be on the third page of links before you find the first page discussing honest-to-goodness wrestling rather than last week’s results on TNA Impact or WWE Raw. If ever there was a sport that needed to rescue its image and restake the claim to its brand, wrestling is it.

And that lack of visibility is almost assuredly part of the IOC’s specious rationale for considering the cancellation of wrestling as an Olympic sport. Considering the billion-dollar business the modern Games have become, finding sports the draw viewers so the Games can charge more and more lucrative contracts for the rights to televise the games is a top priority.

Still, the announcement came as a shock, and that shock resonated locally. Northwest College head coach Jim Zeigler had plenty of adjectives for the decision, but was still stunned the day after the announcement.

“I’m devastated. It’s a terrible decision,” Zeigler said. “I don’t know how to react. I think it’s a joke.”

And he’s right. It is a joke, but it is one of those jokes that nobody seems to be laughing at.

Wrestling is an international sport. Remember the Soviet powerhouse teams that helped fuel Wyoming’s own Rulon Gardner to overnight celebrity via one of the greatest Summer Games moments in Team USA history? We’re not talking a sport like women’s softball where the competitive chasm between the United States and the world was seemingly insurmountable.

Sure, the United States gets its share of medals from the sport, but that’s to be expected. Wrestling is one of the top six sports in terms of participation in the United States, according to numbers Zeigler shared. The effects on those numbers might be anyone’s guess, however, should the IOC’s decision stand.

“I think it will have an impact,” Zeigler said. “There’s a clout that goes along with being an Olympic sport. Wrestling isn’t going to go away, but this might cause the sport to realign to just NCAA-style . It could increase the number of international students that want to come here and compete as well.”

So far, the IOC’s decision is just a wake-up call for the sport of wrestling and wrestling fans around the globe. The IOC will meet later this year in Russia, where wrestling will take its place alongside seven other sports in a battle to see which one activity lays claim to the coveted final spot on the 2020 Olympic program.

Inevitably, the sport has a lot of public relations work to do between now and then. Wrestlers being the notorious hard-workers they are, I wouldn’t count them out just yet.

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