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A History of Wrestling

By Ron Dicker

(LifeWire) -

For the ancient Greeks, wrestling was a very big deal. It virtually defined the original Olympic Games as the marquee event. Among the sport's noted practitioners was the philosopher Plato, who had the brawn and the brains to get out of a clinch; one of wrestling's early sportswriters was Homer, who recounted epic matches.

Wrestling also had the blessing of the gods of Greek mythology: Zeus out-wrestled Cronus for possession of the universe, a feat celebrated in the ancient Olympic Games by making wrestling the decisive, final event of the pentathlon.

Back then, the sport actually resembled what is now known as freestyle wrestling, but with naked competitors coated in olive oil grappling until one succeeded in throwing or knocking the other down.

But this was nothing new. Sumerian cave drawings found in Mesopotamia indicate that wrestling has been around more than 7,000 years.

The Egyptians refined the activity into a science. Tombs around the village of Beni Hasan dating to 2500 BC contain hundreds of wrestling how-to drawings. Many of the moves depicted would be right at home at the Beijing Olympics.

During the Middle Ages, the sport gained knightly appeal that extended to royalty. Henry VIII of England, an avid fan, challenged King Francis I of France to a legendary throwdown in 1520. Francis scored a takedown, as well as cross-channel bragging rights.

Wrestling has global cousins in schwingen (Switzerland), sumo (Japan), kurek (Kazakhstan) and numerous other folk styles. In the New World, Indians were wrestling long before the continent was "discovered."

When Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games in 1896 after a 1,500-year hiatus, officials tried to connect to the ancient past by introducing upper-torso-restricted Greco-Roman wrestling as an event. There was one unlimited weight class, but that didn't stop an agile 5-foot-4 German named Carl Schumann from winning the gold. He also won three golds in gymnastics.

The 1904 Games in St. Louis saw the introduction of freestyle wrestling, a faster-paced discipline that permitted the use of the legs to attack and defend above and below the waist. The Americans swept all seven divisions, but then again, there was no foreign competition.

An 11-hour match in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics persuaded organizers to impose time limits on matches in the 1924 Paris Games.

Eight years later, at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, a Swede named Ivar Johansson performed a feat of weight loss that would probably make Jenny Craig cringe. He won a freestyle gold in the 82-kilogram class, and then melted off more than 10 pounds in 24 hours by fasting and sweating in a sauna so that he could enter the Greco-Roman 72-kilogram (158.5-pound) class. He won that, too.

Wrestling competition at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome carried the taint of Cold War match-fixing. The Soviet Union's Avtandil Koridze needed to pin Bulgaria's Dimiter Yanchev (known then as Dimitro Stoyanov) in a Greco-Roman 67-kilogram (147.5-pound) bout to reach the final against Branislav Martinovic of Yugoslavia. With one minute left, Koridze whispered something into Yanchev's ear then immediately pinned him for the victory. Yugoslavia protested, Yanchev was disqualified, but Koridze was permitted into the gold-medal match, which he then won.

For the US, Dan Gable, arguably the Babe Ruth of American wrestling, emerged as the gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics in Munich in the freestyle 68-kilogram (149.5-pound) class. He later coached a collegiate dynasty at the University of Iowa and the US teams at the 1984 and 2000 Games, both of which featured shocking victories by Americans. In Los Angeles, at the 1984 Games, Jeff Blatnick won the Greco-Roman super heavyweight gold medal just two years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and having his spleen and appendix removed. The drama climaxed when Blatnick scored twice in the last 64 seconds to defeat Sweden's Tomas Johannson in the title match. In 2000, facing three-time gold medalist Alexander Karelin of Russia, an obscure Rulon Gardner scored the only point to win (see sidebar). His outrageous victory produced hopes that more Americans would become interested in the sport and spark an influx of talent. But the 2004 Games in Athens produced just one American gold: Cael Sanderson in freestyle. Gardner earned a bronze and left his shoes on the mat to signal his retirement.

While bidding goodbye to the old guard, the sport took a huge step forward in Athens in 2004: Women competed for the first time. Japan captured two golds, a silver and a bronze - quite a haul for just four weight classes.

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LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Ron Dicker is a New York-based freelance writer who covered sports for the New York Times from 1996 to 2005.
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