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Saving Olympic wrestling

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Sandwiched between the numerous announcing duties of Sandy Stevens at the Fargodome Sunday was a brief mention of a campaign to save Olympic wrestling. The fact those words were heard over the loudspeakers at the USA Wrestling Junior and Cadet national tournaments had a sound of disbelief.

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But it’s real.

And to those who have invested their life in the sport – Stevens, USA communications director Gary Abbott and Team North Dakota junior director Scott Knowlen – there is no time to sit back and wonder what happened.

“I was deeply shocked,” said Stevens, who has missed only one Junior nationals in 43 years.

Among the banners spread over the Fargodome this week is the campaign theme: “2020 Vision: Keep the Dream Alive.” It’s so common that it almost looks synonymous with the USA Wrestling logo.

The good news is the sport survived the first phase with the International Olympic Committee as one of three under consideration as a provisional sport for 2020 and 2024.

The others are squash and a combined baseball/softball bid.

Only one will make it at the next IOC vote in September as a chance to become a core Olympic sport.

“We had to show change,” Abbott said.

The change included leadership, governance, rules and the addition of more women’s opportunities.

The Junior and Cadet rules and scoring on display this week at the dome is the same used in the Olympics, and differs from the traditional folkstyle used by United States high schools and colleges.

The changes, Stevens said, were striking in their approval rate at the recent World Team Trials.

“The new rules make wrestling so much more exciting,” she said. “There’s more emphasis on action and not pushing your opponent out of bounds or stalling for the next minute.”

Abbott said the world wrestling community was blindsided by the February announcement.

Knowlen, a teacher in Bismarck, said even students that have never been to a wrestling match came up to him in class and wondered about it.

A North Dakota state title is still the main motivator for high school athletes, Knowlen said, but having the Olympics once every four years makes the sport more legitimate in the eyes of general sports fans.

“We don’t have the NBA, we don’t have the NFL,” Stevens said. “That’s the mountain top for wrestling.”

A few seconds later, her attention was quickly directed to an electrical problem on one of the mat scoreboards.

The hope in the next 43 years of the sport, whoever is at the microphone of this tournament, is those scoreboards will keep track of Olympic hopefuls.

The United States has been a leader in the campaign, Abbott said, along with Russia, Japan and Iran.

“We’ve had to work hard, look at our sport and make a lot of changes,” he said. “If we’re able to survive the sport in September, we’re going to be able to come out stronger. We’ll be a better sport.”

Jeff Kolpack | Forum News Service

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