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Wrestlers Grapple To Save Sport From Olympic Chopping Block


How often do you find Iran, Russia and the United States united behind a single message? Well, representatives from all three countries were in New York City yesterday, rallying support for the sport of wrestling, which could be excluded from the upcoming Olympic Games. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Wrestling will be part of the 2016 Summer Olympics. If the exclusion is approved, it will apply to the Olympics in 2020 and 2024.]

It was quite a show of sportsmanship and diplomacy. Of course, there was time for some conflict among the wrestlers. It took place at New York's Grand Central Terminal; that's why they called it the Rumble on the Rails. Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: In order to express just how much the Olympics needs wrestling, the point was made, repeatedly, that wrestlers themselves need very little.

BRUCE BAUMGARTNER: You basically need a pair of shorts and a T-shirt to practice.

BILL SCHEER: Two people on grass, sand or a mat can get together and participate in it.

BILLY BALDWIN: All you need is a pair of shoes, a patch of grass or some sand on the beach.

PESCA: That was Bruce Baumgartner the most decorated wrestler in Olympics' history, Olympic medalist Bill Scheer, and Billy Baldwin who wrestled in high school and college before starring in "Backdraft." That these three would come together to praise wrestling was actually the least remarkable thing in the room on the day before the meet - the room being the delegates' dining room at the United Nations; the agenda being the promotion of the meet featuring the U.S., Russia and Iran, and in turn, the trilateral championing of the sport itself.

Jordan Boroughs, who won gold for the U.S.A in London, says to deny other wrestlers that accomplishment - as could happen in 2020 and beyond - would be crushingly unfair.

JORDAN BOROUGHS: You know, this is our NFL, our NBA, our Super Bowl ring. So to take that away from us is to take away the highest level of competition for a wrestler, and to basically kill the dreams of millions of children worldwide.

PESCA: This is a universal feeling among the wrestling community. Iranian coach Rasul Khadem said the possibility of an Olympics without wrestling was distressing...

RASUL KHADEM: (Foreign language spoken)

PESCA: And questioned the legitimacy of an Olympics without his sport.

Russian coach and gold medalist, Khadzhimurad Magomedov, upon first hearing that the Olympics might discontinue wrestling, simply thought.

KHADZHIMURAD MAGOMEDOV: (Foreign language spoken)

PESCA: That's impossible.

So yesterday, in Grand Central, several causes were arriving at the same time on different tracks. There was wrestling diplomacy. There was saving the sport. And there was the competition itself. Iranian fans packed Vanderbilt Hall, engaging in not one but two versions of an Iran chant.


PESCA: Fans like, Iranian-American Arman Azimi, of Storrs, Connecticut, noted that it was a rare time when he could wave an Iranian flag in the U.S. and feel pride in his culture.


ARMAN AZIMI: I think it's very cathartic, to be honest. I mean my friends say that we need to root as much for the American athletes as we do for the Iranian athletes. You know?

PESCA: Azimi had much to cheer. All the Iranians beat the Americans, with one exception, Klyle Dake - who was a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell - won in his international debut. Later, the Americans would go eight and one against the Russians, who were said not to have fielded their top squad.

Team U.S.A. will seek revenge against the Iranians - the two nations face off in Los Angles on Sunday. Less than two weeks later, in St Petersburg, Russia, a vote will be held to decide if wrestling remains one of three sports that could still make the 2020 and 2024 games, or if the great wrestling powers will be forced to make their connection only at train stations for the foreseeable future.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 15, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
The introduction to this story suggests that wrestling could be excluded from the 2016 Summer Games. The exclusion, if approved, would apply to the Olympics in 2020 and 2024.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.