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By Greg Wallace
Special to WIN Magazine
Bobby Douglas knows where he’d be without wrestling. And it isn’t pretty.
“I was in the streets with guys who had no future,” Douglas, the Hall of Fame coach and former Olympic wrestler and coach, said. “I saw so many go to war and not come home. Playmates I had, they’re in prison or the graveyard.”
Douglas, a decorated amateur wrestler before helming powerful programs at Arizona State and Iowa State, is perhaps the most prominent African-American advocate that wrestling has, and one of the most prominent and vocal overall. In Douglas’ eyes, wrestling’s diversity – which includes African-Americans and others – is not just positive. It’s crucial to the sport’s lifeblood.
“That’s the beautiful thing about it,” he said. “You go from the smallest to the largest. Women, the handicapped, there’s no more diverse sport on the face of the earth. When USA Wrestling and the powers that be start talking about diversity, you get the impression they’re talking about black and white.
“They’re talking about American kids. It’s the most inclusive of sports. It’s for people that aren’t wealthy. You don’t have to be wealthy to participate, like most Olympic sports where you have to be wealthy. Wrestling crosses all poverty lines and racial barriers.”
African-Americans have a proud legacy in wrestling. They include Iowa’s Simon Roberts, who became the state of Iowa’s first black high school wrestling champion and then the first black NCAA wrestling champion while wrestling for Iowa in 1957; Art Baker and Jim Nance of Syracuse and Lee Kemp, a three-time NCAA champion at Wisconsin and three-time world champion, who only found wrestling after he was cut from his eighth-grade basketball team for being too small.
Wrestling historian Mike Chapman, who founded and ran the International Wrestling Institute and Museum, said “you can make the case that Bobby Douglas leads the entire parade in terms of impact for African-Americans in wrestling. He was a two-time Olympian, a great collegiate wrestler and he took Arizona State to the NCAA title as the first school west of the Rockies to do so. He’s written books and been an ambassador for the sport at the highest level.”
And Douglas says he owes everything to the sport he is so passionate about.
“Most of my family were coal miners and mill workers,” he said. “They died early. I got an education, finished up some educational material and have a wonderful family. I credit it all to wrestling. Without it I never would’ve gotten an education. An education is the greatest thing that can happen to anyone.”
Wrestling helped lift Douglas out of poverty, and it has done the same for many other African-American wrestlers. Douglas is now involved with a program called “Beat The Streets” which has some roots to the 1960s as an anti-poverty program of former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Started in wrestling by long-time wrestling ambassador and former New York high school coach Al Bevilacqua, Douglas said Beat the Streets has saved thousands of minority children in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia by giving them an alternative to the streets.
“We’re recruiting kids away from the gangs,” he said. “Giving them something to do and putting positive role models around them. We are beating the streets. So many of the ghetto kids from Chicago had nothing to do. It wasn’t a choice. If you lived in a gang area you became affiliated with a gang or you didn’t live in that area. But they didn’t bother wrestlers.”
And while African-Americans have given wrestling diversity, it was an African woman who helped save the sport on the Olympic level. In 2013, the International Olympic Committee initially voted to exclude wrestling from the Summer Olympics, but following a spirited campaign, the IOC voted to keep it for the 2020 and 2024 Games.
Wrestling won the majority it needed by one vote, and those voting for it included Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel, a 1984 graduate of Iowa State and winner of the 400-meter hurdles in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
“Every wrestler in the world should be thanking her,” Douglas said of El Moutawakel. “She cast the vote that saved wrestling in the Olympic Games, and it’s a contribution that no one has ever really shown any gratification for.”
El Moutawakel is a major supporter of wrestling on the African continent, and while it’s unclear how much she learned about the sport while at ISU, the state’s passion about wrestling couldn’t have hurt.
It just goes to show that diversity truly matters — and should be celebrated — in wrestling.