When I was a freshman in high school, I joined the wrestling team. It was a mistake. But my prep school, in the tradition of old English public schools, forced students to play sports every season. The idea was that young men, or more specifically young aristocratic men, would learn moral toughness on the wrestling mat or in the rugby scrum or anywhere they were likely to bleed. So I bled.
Wrestling wasn’t my only option for winter sports. I could have played basketball or squash. But I was 5’2”, and I couldn’t jump or shoot or dribble or defend. And I couldn’t pick a squash racquet out of a lineup. Wrestling, in any case, seemed noble and rigorous, like a martial art. Besides, you got to wear those cool shoes.
This was the era too of Vision Quest, a movie in which Matthew Modine, a champion high school wrestler, thinks he’s a Native American. Instead of settling for easy glory (he would have been a shoo-in for the state championship in his weight class), he gives himself a “spiritual” test: Drop weight to fight a blond tough guy named, of all things, Shute. (“Shoot” is one of the things you yell at wrestlers to urge them to fling themselves at another wrestler’s legs. “Shoot!” “Shoot!”) Modine tests his physical limits by jumping a lot of rope. Then he gets to sleep with Linda Fiorentino, who, with her throaty voice and wife-beaters, seems tough, sexy-tough, a hot mirror of masculinity. Meanwhile Madonna (sexy-tough in her own way) sings “Crazy for You.” That was wrestling, and I was in.
It did seem spiritual, or at least technical, in those first few practices. We mimed different shots, single-leg takedown, double-leg takedown, fireman’s carry. The moves had to be quick and precise. Soon, though, I learned that in the heat of the bout (and it was always goddamn hot!), technique was nothing. You had to want to kill your opponent. You had to want to take his head and smash it into the floor. You had to want blood. Wrestling was about aggression, and I wasn’t aggressive.
The practice room became a Petri dish of illness and dismay. The constant heat sucked out our water weight and sapped our defenses. Our noses ran. We had cauliflower ear. I remember seeing Mike Padula, another lightweight wrestler (I started at 98 pounds), eating only yogurt and soft pretzels and then vomiting. Wrestling was disgusting.
Wrestling should surely be an Olympic sport, as so many commentators have noted. It’s not commercially crass in the way of basketball or even snowboarding. It’s ancient and fundamental. And it’s big in Tehran. I don’t disagree with any of this, but I hesitate. Just because something isn’t that corporate doesn’t mean it’s moral. The ejection of wrestling from the Olympics makes me think, not only of my own failures and realizations as a grappler, but of the whole Olympic project, the making of the ubermensch – bigger, faster, stronger, more aggressive. My own high school’s compulsory sports program in fact could be traced back to the Rugby School where in the 19th century they invented that edifying space, the rugby scrum (Pile on, boys) and inspired the modern Olympic Games. There, headmaster Thomas Arnold (father of poet Matthew) espoused the virtues of elitist masculinity, which drove the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin to found the Games in 1896. Now it’s ironic that wrestling lost out to modern pentathlon, a sport invented by de Coubertin to test the skills of a gentleman soldier – running, swimming, horseback riding, shooting, and fencing. (I wonder what a contemporary pentathlon would include. Drone strikes and PTSD?)
The wrestler may be an ancient warrior, but he is a warrior nonetheless, and in celebrating him we should be mindful of our fellow cheerleaders. There is already a Wall Street lobby supporting wrestling’s return, and its argument smacks of macho privilege. “It’s not in a wrestler’s DNA to hop on a plane and kiss a lot of ass,” said one hedge-fund manager. “But that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing.” Politicians are on board, too, among them Donald Rumsfeld. A wrestler in his Princeton days, Rumsfeld wrote – if you call it writing – in the Washington Post the other day:
Wrestling uniquely encapsulates the Olympic spirit, even though it harkens back to older and more martial virtues, rather than the arts festival and Kumbaya session that some may prefer the modern Games to be.
In other words, today’s Olympics are for pussies and peaceniks. Fuck. Let’s go pound some man-flesh.
Wrestling should stay as a Olympic sport. It a sport about strength and character.
Thanks for this, Austin; it reminds me of how awful the wrestlers were at my high school. And by awful I mean sexist, homophobic bullies. Like young Rumsfelds.
— Matt Feb 23, 01:12 PM #
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