The product of a grassroots wrestling club and the enthusiasm of a far-sighted high-school coach, Vancouver freestyle wrestler Kyle Nguyen transformed his physique and his ambitions on the mats at John Oliver secondary’s gym.
Now a freshman student-athlete at the University of Winnipeg, Nguyen reached the final bout in the 130 kg class at two major tournaments. He was a three-time national high school medalist.
Like wrestlers and their coaches around the world, Nguyen was shocked and saddened by the International Olympic Committee’s decision Tuesday to pull wrestling from its “core program” of 26 summer sports following the 2016 Rio Games.
“I was absolutely livid,” wrote Nguyen in an email to the Courier, noting his frustration at seeing an “already under-funded and under-appreciated sport further degraded.”
The 19-year-old Vancouver athlete was not working toward the 2016 Summer Games, but he did consider competing at the 2020 Games (which will be held in Madrid, Tokyo or Istanbul) a realistic goal. Personal ambition aside, his concern for the sport is deeper.
“For the immediate time being, this does not change my goals nor my training; however I fear for the continuation of wrestling at the CIS level. The CIS is often considered and thought of as the developmental grounds for the Olympics, and without the Olympics in tow I would not be surprised if funding and support for the sport at the CIS and collegiate level would decline.”
Nguyen’s concern is shared by his high school coach, Chris Fuoco, who said wrestling is one sport that draws competitors from across all spectrums of society all around the world. Not only was wrestling a component of Greece’s ancient games, but it has been an Olympic event since the first Games of the modern era in 1896, he argued.
“Why was it there,” wrote Fuoco, “because wrestling is a sport that transcends all countries, cultures, all sizes […] and recently both sexes.”
Seventeen out of 54 CIS universities across Canada have a varsity wrestling program.
“I believe the chance to develop an Olympian is part of the equation for the universities,” said Fuoco. “It is also important for Sport Canada funding. Will the federal government fund Wrestling Canada past 2016?”
The CIS does not fund sports programs directly, but its member universities do. Gord Grace, the CIS president elect said on Wednesday morning that the IOC’s decision to cut wrestling could have an impact on Canadian universities down the road.
“I know that wrestling is a valued sport and certainly the CIS has had a strong history of producing Olympic-calibre athletes, participants and even medalists,” he said. “I’d like to think that the CIS is going to move forward and wrestling will stay strong the CIS. Hopefully the IOC will reconsider their decision.”
The University of B.C. does not have a varsity wrestling program within its athletic department but does have a school club in the student’s Alma Mater Society.
“I myself have supported efforts to revive a program at the University of B.C. with the key selling feature the athletics program could gain notoriety via Olympic success,” said Fuoco.
The coach of the UBC Wrestling Club, Dave Wilson, said he will continue to pursue varsity status and to join the growing ranks of CIS men’s and women’s wrestling programs. In the past two years, he said three new wrestling programs have joined the CIS.
“CIS wrestling has been the backbone of the development and high performance for decades,” he said. “That’s where our sport has the most qualified professional coaches, travel budgets, facilities to train, training partners and where scholarships can be offered. I don't think this decision by the IOC will help wrestling in Canada. However, it may help re-energize our sport and its alumni into lobbying and better supporting our high schools, university's and national programs.”
Wrestling will be added to a list of seven sports to be re-considered for the official summer roster for the 2020 Olympics. The IOC was widely expected to cut modern pentathlon, which was invented by the creator of the modern Games and may be a sentimental reason the sport was retained over wrestling, itself a sport with ancient ties to the Olympics. At the London Games, modern pentathlon featured athletes from 26 countries, while wrestlers came from 71.
“What is more Olympic than wrestling,” asked Wilson. “Wrestling has a rich history. It was in the ancient Olympics. It is practised in almost every country and has is symbolic of the purity of amateur sport, sportsmanship and the struggle — literally — to achieve excellence. There's a reason Jacob wrestled the angel and didn't pentathlon him.”