History of wrestling

Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports, and it is impossible to trace its true origins. Depictions of wrestling appear as early as 3000 B.C. in the Near East, and evidence exists of wrestling competition in ancient Mesopotamia, the Nile River valley, India and Greece. There are references to wrestling in the oldest surviving work of Western Literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as in the oldest surviving work of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad. Based on these artifacts, it appears that wrestling may have been one of the first truly global sports. Wrestling was part of the ancient Olympics since the 18th Olympiad in 708 B.C. And the Greeks appear to be the first people to structure wrestling competition as an elimination tournament. Freestyle wrestling of today is a direct descendant of many ancient forms. In fact, most of the tactics used in today’s freestyle wrestling can be found among the 406 wrestling pairs depicted on the walls of Middle Kingdom tombs in the Nile Valley. There are Egyptian, Indian, English, Scottish and Irish versions of wrestling that all contain elements of freestyle.

Up from the mat

In February 2013, wrestlers from around the world received some shocking news: their sport had been dropped from the Olympic program. Wrestling was then cast into a lot of seven other sports vying for inclusion on the 2020 and 2024 Olympic program. In response, the wrestling community came together to keep the sport in the Olympics. Wrestling’s international governing body made several changes intended to modernize the sport. Among them were dropping two men’s events and adding two women’s freestyle events, changing the round format from three two-minute periods to two-three minute periods and implementing a cumulative scoring system rather than a system where a wrestler has to outscore their opponent in two-out-of-three rounds. A committee to “Save Olympic Wrestling” also began soon afterwards and enlisted several notable athletes and celebrities, including Billy Baldwin, Mark Ruffalo, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz. Wrestling was later shortlisted, along with baseball/softball and squash, for a final vote in September 2013. At the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, the IOC voted to include wrestling on the Olympic program for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. “With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference,” wrestling’s international governing body’s president Nenad Lalovic said in a statement after the vote. “I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now.”

Who is the greatest?

A popular debate in the wrestling community will likely never be settled: who is the greatest wrestler of all-time? With the Olympics every four years and the deep history of the sport, there are valid arguments for many wrestlers. But in wrestling’s long history, only seven men have won four or more wrestling medals at the Olympics:

  • Wilfried Dietrich (FRG/GER) won five medals (one gold) between 1956 and 1968
  • Artur Taymazov (UZB) won four medals (three golds) between 2000 and 2012
  • Aleksandr Karelin (URS/EUN/RUS) won four medals (three golds) between 1988 and 2000
  • Bruce Baumgartner (USA) won four medals (two golds) between 1984 and 1996
  • Rudolf Svensson (SWE) won four medals (two golds) between 1924 and 1932
  • Imre Polyak (HUN) won four medals (one gold) between 1952 and 1964
  • Eino Leino (FIN) won four medals (one gold) between 1920 and 1932