Behind The Scenes

ESPN NCAA wrestling analysts weigh in on IOC recommendation to drop the sport from 2020 Olympic Games

2012 NCAA Wrestling Championships. (Photo courtesy of Getty images)
The 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships will air on various ESPN platforms. (Getty images)

Wrestling has been a part of the modern Olympics since its beginning in 1896, and traces its roots to back to ancient Greece and the original Olympic Games.

Recently, however, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended wrestling be eliminated as a core sport after the 2016 games in Brazil.

The wrestling community was shocked.

At ESPN, the sport is woven into the company’s history and well into its future. ESPN aired the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championship in 1980, shortly after the network’s 1979 debut, and is committed to showcasing the next generation of Division I champions until 2024.

ESPN wrestling analysts Tim Johnson and Anthony Robles will be at this year’s championships March 21-23. Johnson previously served as the Director of Wrestling for the 1984 Olympics and has been calling matches for more than 20 years. His on-air partner at ESPN, Robles, won his last NCAA title in 2011 and is closely connected with the current competition.

Front Row asked both analysts for their thoughts on the Olympic news and future of wrestling:

Anthony Robles (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)
Anthony Robles (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

Were you surprised by the IOC’s recommendation to drop wrestling in the 2020 Olympic Games?
TJ: Yes, although with recent changes [fewer men’s weight classes and the addition of women’s freestyle] I knew that it was possible for additional changes in the future. But never did I think that the entire sport might be eliminated as a core sport of the Olympics.
AR: At first it was pure shock which turned into anger, but now we [the wrestling community] have moved passed all that to figure out a solution to the issue. It goes back to that old wrestling strategy “just find a way to win.”

Why do you think the Olympics is important for the sport?
TJ: We love our sports heroes and Olympic champions are the most visible and have widely recognized as the epitome and pinnacle of wrestling success.
AR: If you look at sports like football or basketball, they have the NFL and NBA. Wrestling doesn’t have an actual pro league in the same sense. The Olympics is the highest plateau for all wrestlers, across the globe. If you take away wrestling from the Olympics, it kills the dreams for young wrestlers hoping to reach that top stage and represent their country.

How likely do you believe it is that the IOC will change its mind?
TJ: Everything rises and falls with leadership. We’ll just have to wait and see. If it’s not this time around, the goal is the same for the next time around. Stay the course no matter what and the likelihood probably increases. At the moment we’re engaged in a sprint, but we must be prepared for a marathon.

If wrestling is dropped from the Olympics, what effect do you think that will have on the sport at the collegiate level?
TJ: It doesn’t have to have any negative effect. In fact for a variety of reasons, some having to do with the complexity of the Olympic movement, it was determined years ago that America would have a unique brand of wrestling — folkstyle — that in many ways is better. Our style is flourishing at the youth level and after several years of declining programs at the collegiate level, we are experiencing an upward trend with new programs being added annually.

The NCAA Division I Championships are an incredible show with more than 100,000 fans annually attending the 3-day, sold-out event and 12 hours of live ESPNU/ESPN coverage. It’s one of the most successful events of all the NCAA championships. Wrestling is alive and well and quite frankly, if this recent decision by the IOC “unleashes the power” of the wrestling community in the way that it looks like it is doing, then I believe we can “have our cake and eat it, too,” meaning the best is yet to come for this sport at every level and in every style.

Do you have a favorite Olympic wrestling moment?
TJ: Gable was my boyhood hero and it was special to see how he overcame adversity in his life to win the Gold (without a point scored on him) in ’72. And then when I was the Director of Wrestling for the 1984 Olympics in LA , I was matside when Jeff Blatnick, a cancer survivor at the time, won the Gold. Both were special moments not only for me, but significant in Olympic wrestling history. Both Gable and Blatnick became my friends and longtime broadcast partners. [Blatnick was an ESPN wrestling analyst].

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