Is Professional Wrestling an Olympic Sport?
The eyes of the sporting world at large have been fixated on Rio de Janeiro as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad enter their final days. Despite predictions of super bacteria infections and a Zika Virus outbreak, the Rio Games have gone on without a hitch aside from lime green swimming pools, several broken bones and incidents of televised frontal nudity.
Yet, as athletes from around the world gather to compete for national pride, I can't help but wonder if there is room at the top for one more medal to be earned. Can the IOC and the whole world set aside their preconceived notions and crown a true champion in the greatest sport on earth, that of professional wrestling?
Much like Olympic boxing differs from what we traditionally know as boxing in the United States under the Compubox scoring system, professional wrestling differs significantly from its bastard cousin known as “sports entertainment”. Though before we can even comprehend where a competition revolving around televised weddings and stiff chair shots can coexist alongside beach volleyball, we must define the sport in its purest form.
While the true origins of the sport are still somewhat contested, many historians believe the sport of “worked fighting” began as early as the mid-1800s. Pick-up boxing matches were the sport of choice as sailors eager to make a quick payday would wager their coin in alleys or at the shipyard. Of course, with each victory came a notable swell to a fighters ego. Soon, personas would emerge and fans would gravitate towards those whose being seemed larger than life.
Eventually, what would be the present day equivalent to a fight promoter appeared and took notice to the crowds being drawn to the matches. With some crude choreography, the idea of a “worked” fight emerged. Fighters were given tacky names, some more akin to an act in a traveling circus freak show than a bonafide boxing combatant. However, the driving force behind the desire to predetermine the fight was as simple as it is today: taking competition out of the fight removes some of the threat of injury and a healthy fighter can earn more money.
As time went on, the sport evolved into a form we would be more familiar with today. In the late 1920's, submission holds and Greco-Roman elements were slowly added into the repertoire of fighters. Fights became more violent and physical while maintaining the somewhat choreographed nature. While the idea of pageantry and gimmickry was tantamount to the long-term success of the sport, without the in-ring prowess of early greats such as Ed Lewis, Frank Gotch, Martin Burns and countless others.
While modern professional wrestling is, of course, a much different version of the sport than what was seen by fans during The Great Depression, it's validity as a sport cannot be denied. A certain level of physical talent is required to achieve success in professional wrestling.
While true, progression in modern wrestling is largely determined by the character you play, a bland performance in the ring will quickly set you apart as just another face in the crowd. It is crucial to distinguish by and large the likes of Haystacks Calhoon and The Godfather are the exceptions to the rule.
While remaining an actual sport in every definition of the word, the general public perception towards the sport remains not great. Many simply cannot get past the predetermined nature of the sport and just dismiss it as “fake.” However, this critical oversight has robbed many of hours of some of the best sporting entertainment on television and impedes what could be the next breakout Olympic sport of this century.
This can't possibly work, could it...
It absolutely can and would!
Before digging into the logistics of a competitive form of professional wrestling, we must discuss and defend the merit of professional wrestling as a sport. While wins and losses in wrestling are predetermined, the personal growth experienced as one takes up the sport. Success in professional wrestling isn't necessary measured as an ascension to a title reign in WWE or Ring of Honor.
Mastery of the craft takes several years and is an arduous journey full of pain and sacrifice. Proficiency is measured in safety and execution rather than the decibels of a live audience. Despite this, the immediate merit of professional wrestling as an Olympic event may not be apparent; it's worth mentioning that the barrier to inclusion into the Olympiad doesn't seem to be too high.
Piloting a sailboat is an Olympic sport, as is the national sport of the United States, operating a firearm. While not to take anything away from these “athletes”, if shooting is an Olympic sport, then the entire population of Ferguson Missouri would be adorned in gold, silver or bronze.
Bare in mind that equestrian sports are also contested during the Olympics and although the horse does most of the work, he or she is not eligible for a medal. Also, Tug-Of-War has previously been contested during prior Olympic games of course under the protection of the Tug-Of-War International Federation. Prior gold medal winners include Great Brittain and The United States and Sweden.
Seeing as the land version of rowing a boat is eligible for consideration, it's not outside the realm of plausibility that professional wrestling can achieve the level of competition needed to succeed as a sanctioned sport. However, an even larger question remains: In a sport in which the outcome is nearly always predetermined, how do you measure it's merit as competition? The answer is indeed embarrassing simple and pays homage to the true nature and spirit of the sport...
Treat professional wrestling as a gymnastic event.
To be successful as an Olympic game, focus on professional wrestling would shine solely on the in ring product and must be completely devoid of the pageantry in the modern product. Gone would be grandiose entrances and over the top announcers, replaced instead of two masters of the craft, ready to execute a display of their talents.
To compensate for the predetermined nature of the sport, you would have no true distinction of “heel” or “babyface” although one would likely still need to work in the spirit of the role. Considering safety and performance, the two combatants must be comfortable with each other in the ring, likely leading to months, if not years of preparation in the execution of their match.
Of course, the constant training and choreography required to execute a match would likely disqualify several of the bigger name WWE employed wrestlers from taking part. However, this certainly isn't a bad thing. Without a monetary stake in matters, an unobjectionable governing body covering professional wrestling would expose many amazing talents to the public, especially those that can perform in the ring, even if they don't have “the look”.
A likely scenario would emerge where each participating country would send a team of three (two wrestlers and a referee) to compete in each sanctioned discipline or division of the sport. In-ring action differentiates significantly by division, making the staffing and judging needs a bit steep. Scoring would solely consider the execution of the in ring sport by all parties involved and would remain independent of the winner of the match.
As an Olympic event, professional wrestling would likely be more akin to figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics. An example of this in practice makes the picture a bit clearer. For example, representing the United States in the Heavyweight Division: Jay Lethal and AJ Styles with Mike Chioda acting as referee.
Even if Lethal “wins” the match, the participants are scored as a team. These three will always work together and will never wrestle another participant. This is a display of talent and athleticism, not a contest of strength.
Of course, this pipe dream is not without some enormous challenges. Setting aside the current climate in professional wrestling as it relates to business, a display such as this on a global scale pulls back the curtain in a way that WWE could never have imagined to have done. Displaying professional wrestling as a gymnastic display runs the risk of killing the magic for fans either on the fringe or returning to the product after a long hiatus.
The image of professional wrestling could morph from the current rebuke of the scripted nature of the product to the wonderment of the relevancy of anything that takes place in the ring. If there is zero doubt that what these two men or women are doing in the ring has any bearing on the story as a whole, then what is the point. Televised professional wrestling could transform from must watch Monday night programming, to a weekly broadcast of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Of course, the opposite could be true. By honoring and honing the craft, professional wrestling could enter an entirely new era. One in which dominance of the sport isn't measured in the number guest hosting slots occupied on the Today Show, but by the mastery of the sport. Real talent in professional wrestling is the ability to master not only the microphone, but the squared circle itself, and that is something I think the whole world would learn to respect.