The world’s oldest competitive sport. A sport that was part of the ancient Olympic games and the focus of the modern Olympics when they debuted in 1896. A sport that has brought the U.S. 125 medals, 50 of them gold. Wiped from the competition. To Verona’s wrestling community, the action was unthinkable.
“My first reaction was total and utter shock,” says Chris Hardenberg, one of only three Verona High School wrestlers with 100 wins to his credit. “I couldn’t believe that they had removed a sport that was part of the foundation of the Olympics as we know it today. It was in the modern Olympics since it had started in 1896 and now its gone? It didn’t make any sense to me and it pained me.”
A group of volunteer coaches has been building a youth wrestling program in Verona for nearly two decades. From its improvised beginning in the basement of the First Congregational Church to its current three-mat set-up at F.N. Brown Elementary School, the program has fed a steady stream of prospects to the Verona High School wrestling program. No Verona wrestlers have yet made it to the Olympics (we did have a gold medal in swimming in 1964) but plenty of Verona names have come home with trophies from district, regional and even state championships.
Hardenberg wrestled in college, and is now back as an assistant coach at VHS. It pains him to think that the kids he is now helping won’t be able to aspire to the Olympic spotlight. “To see the sport that I had participated in for 15 years, that I grinded through, bled through, cried through, cut weight for, sacrificed time with friends and family for, just be removed from the highest state available in the sport was hard to swallow,” he says.
“I know just a small piece of what Olympic hopefuls go through,” Hardenberg adds. “Their life is the sport. They eat, sleep, and breathe wrestling just to have the chance to compete at the sport’s highest level and now it’s gone. In this sport, those guys are not in it for the money, or fame because those things really aren’t available in the sport. There is no professional league for guys to go to after college: They train for the Olympics. That is a wrestler’s Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup and it only comes around every four years.”
Hardenberg is hoping that the IOC will reconsider its decision and he is not alone. Roll Call, which normally only covers the arm wrestling that occurs in Congress over legislation, had a lengthy story on Thursday about the U.S. lawmakers who were angered by the decision. A rare, bi-partisan group has introduced a resolution in the Senate protesting the IOC decision and asking it to reconsider.
That could happen. Several news sources are reporting this morning that the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), the governing body for amateur wrestling, has dismissed its president, Raphael Martinetti, apparently because he was a source of friction with the IOC.
“I believe that the Olympics needs wrestling,” says Hardenberg, “just like wrestling needs the Olympics.”