Editors note: This article was formerly titled “Popularity of Wrestling” and was changed after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games partially due to the almost threefold spike in Olympic medals won by Team USA in 2020. In the below photo, Tamyra Mensah-Stock celebrates becoming USA’s 2nd Women’s Wrestling Olympic Champ at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Since 1968, USA Wrestling has won a combined 81 medals for an average of 6.2 medals per Games for roughly 18-20 weight classes (8 medals won out of 18 weight classes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games). The weight class number is an approximation because now there are 18 medals for wrestling at the Olympic Games (since 2004) and in the past, there were 20 weight classes contested at the Olympics.
USA Olympic wrestling medals won since 1968
- 1968 Mexico City 2
- 1972 Munich 6
- 1976 Montreal 6
- 1980 Moscow 0 (USA boycott )
- 1984 Los Angeles 13 (Soviet Union boycott)
- 1988 Seoul 6
- 1992 Barcelona 8
- 1996 Atlanta 8
- 2000 Sydney 7
- 2004 Athens 6
- 2008 Beijing 3
- 2012 London 4
- 2016 Rio 3
- 2020 Tokyo 9
- 2024 Paris ?
Keep this in mind, wrestling is a very popular sport in the former Soviet Union and now Russia (plus 13 other republics i.e. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Belarussia, Ukraine, Lithuania, etc.) During this same time period, the Soviet Union/Russia won almost double the USAs medal count or 153 medals.
If USA could produce more medals for wrestling at the Olympic Games, would this medal count increase the popularity of our great sport?
If the popularity of our great sport is increased, would this increase the amount of resources available to continue a great wrestling tradition like the Russian men’s programs or the Japanese women’s program?
Mixed martial arts has exploded in popularity over the last 15 years or so and some of the advertising strategies they are using are similar to what many professional sport organizations are using. One example of this idea is the marketing and promotion of their product via the internet, magazines, & television. Exposure through said media channels may help increase exposure to young aspiring mixed martial artists. Many media sport organizations like ESPN, FOX Sports, NBC Sports, & others also have this same type of mass exposure for everyone to see. This mass exposure may be one of the keys to success of making a sport popular.
Money can help you pay gas, electric, food bills; buy cars; pay rent; & pay mortgages among other things. If these necessities are in question, it may be hard to keep our best athletes in our sport. MMA can pay more money to athletes that are not world champions nor national team members currently than USA Wrestling can. If you are a national team member, a world or an Olympic Champion, you may be able to survive, thrive, & train in our wonderful sport. It is possible to live, train, & thrive under the current structure (it is hard – believe me) and it appears many world class athletes are leaving wrestling for MMA or other jobs to help pay bills and/or have a family. When many world class wrestlers leave our sport in their prime, this may make our sport less popular.
Other training systems
There are other sport training systems in the USA and abroad that appear to work efficiently & effectively regarding retaining, developing, and paying athletes. Some of the different than wrestling training systems include: Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, track & field, swimming, tennis, skiing, cycling. To my knowledge, all of these training systems actually allow the athletes to ‘go pro’ or forgo amateur status and train/compete as professionals. There are other sports like volleyball, speedskating, & female gymnastics that have a different/successful model than just mentioned and also different from wrestling.
Soccer, or football as it is called world wide, is different too. Many football programs across the globe are very similar to hockey & baseball in the USA in terms of development, retention, and remuneration. In other words, most world football leagues have training centers that feed into the major league system or professional team. And, it usually takes several years for a teen to make it from these training centers to the professional leagues. These systems appear to work because many athletes make the professional ranks, or are on television, or can make a living in the minor leagues if they are not on television. When training systems are efficient & effective, this may increase popularity.
Most successful soccer, baseball, hockey, gymnastic, swimming, & other teams have something similar to sport schools. Many of these sport schools (are before training centers) teach the same sport that is being contested either professionally or at the Olympic Games (compare this to mastering collegiate wrestling in high school & college – then mastering international style wrestling as an adult or at ages 22-27). Some of these sport schools are fee based and some of these sport schools are merit based while others are both. One key for mass exposure and/or mass participation in sport is high level coaching for all – even for those who may be unable to afford it…
A key component of these sport schools is (at least and many times more than) 15-20 hours of training per week. Another key component of these sport schools is that they are designed just like elementary, middle, or high schools in terms of development and/or length. In other words, most of these schools’ design is to teach a student till junior level mastery which may take 7-10 years.
The final component is the sports being taught are the same as the professional or Olympic Games sport being contested (again, refer to current folkstyle wrestling taught in all USA high schools & colleges). This is a key component because the time it takes to master a sport may take longer if a student starts later. In some cases, students may master only certain parts of the sport prior to making the Olympic Games or before retiring. Think of a sixth grader trying to compete with a high school graduate in sport or in the classroom. This example may be what we are up against in our wonderful sport sometimes at the Olympic level due to gaps in development or a late start at mastering sport. Mastery of sport at a young age, say 19, may increase the popularity for many youth. (2012 Olympic wrestling champions Toghrul Asgarov, AZE, was 19 & Natalia Vorobieva, RUS, were 20 – 2012 Olympic basketball champions & NBA champions Kobe Bryant, LeBron James entered NBA at 17, 18 respectively.)
The Basketball & Soccer effect
These 2 sports are unique because they combine many elements to be popular from above and they add this next factor that many sports do not have. This unique factor is mastering the sport on the playgrounds. Said another way, the USA (basketball) and Brazil (soccer) produce many teenage superstars that ‘go pro’ prior to sport schools and training centers (mass exposure & participation with minimal or no fees). So many athletes are in these sports and it appears that the talent pool is rich due to the popularity of the sports. In other words, so many youth are participating in these sports, that it seems like a lot of training and learning is done via games that are played at American or Brazilian playgrounds or parks with out formal or paid coaches. This may happen because the sports are extremely popular due to the mass exposure given to these sports in their respective countries. Think Pele or Jordan (icons in soccer & basketball respectively); or think of how many youth want to be like Mike or Pele…
The factors of MMA, money, other training systems, sport schools, and the basketball & soccer effect may have an impact on the popularity of wrestling. Popularity of wrestling may also have an impact on medals won.
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