Wrestling superstars need more than Olympics to carry the sport

Updated: May 14, 2024

By Kyle Klingman

The 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials are over, leaving hundreds of wrestlers to shelve their dreams for another four years. And only 15 of 18 wrestlers became Paris Olympians after a last-chance Olympic qualifier in May.

“Not many finish on top,” said 2000 Canadian Olympian and Simon Fraser coach Justin Abdou. “I was down there with one of my wrestlers. Seeing all these grown men cry reminded me how real and tough our sport is.”

Although many casually mention their desire to make an Olympic team in interviews, the process is beyond comprehension. Imagine selecting an All-NBA team, an All-NFL team, or an All-MLB team once every four years, but the number shrinks by 40 percent.

The United States gets a maximum of six spots in three disciplines (men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, and Greco-Roman) once every four years in the only event that matters to the general public.

“The Olympic Games is a two-week time frame where you have swimming, track & field, and wrestling, and all these sports are there and you watch it every night. And it’s once every four years,” Iowa coach and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Tom Brands said. “You can say what you want but the Worlds are just as important. It’s probably tougher to win a World title and it’s just as exciting.

“It’s more about the public perception. There’s only one reason I watch Michael Phelps. I’ve never seen Michael Phelps swim in a World Championship. I don’t even know his credentials. I could guess he’s probably a World champion in something. I know he won 23 Olympic gold medals because it was on primetime television and that’s how wrestling is.”

That’s the allure. A fringe sport with a loyal fan base gets momentarily lifted into a worldwide spotlight.

Helen Maroulis, Tamyra Mensah-Stock, Jordan Burroughs, Dan Gable, Rulon Gardner, David Taylor, and Gable Steveson made names for themselves beyond the wrestling base by winning Olympic gold medals. All other credentials are secondary.

No grandchild says his or her grandfather tried out for the World Championships or the NCAA Championships. It’s always, “My grandfather tried out for the Olympics.”

Many are delusional about credentials from the past but mention the word Olympics and heads will inevitably turn.

And that’s part of the problem.

Wrestling needs more than the Olympic Games, but it can’t be forced and it must happen organically. Attempts to create professional wrestling leagues have floundered, and the NCAA Championships and World Championships will always have an important place.

Even a state title has more inherent public value than a Super 32 or Fargo title, although the latter two are more difficult to win. Nothing can replace community pride.

Superstars carry a sport, and that’s why the recent surge of high school talent competing at the highest levels is so refreshing. Fans get to see them compete often through a variety of platforms.

Audrey Jimenez won an Arizona boys’ state championship on February 17 and then boarded a plane the next day for the Pan-American Championships in Acapulco, Mexico, the following day. Then she reached the best-of-three series against Sarah Hildebrandt, where she fell in straight matches.

Her name is constantly being mentioned.

High school stars Bo Bassett, Jax Forrest, Marcus Blaze, Luke Lilledahl, and Kaleb Larkin have top-of-mind awareness. That will likely slow down, but it contributes to their stardom today.

Bassett was hired as a celebrity guest at a recent wrestling tournament, and his line for pictures and autographs was long. Reminder: Bo Bassett is a high school sophomore.

Gable Steveson momentarily injected wrestling with enthusiasm when he won the 2023 U.S. Open and Final X, but then he inexplicably didn’t compete at the World Championships. We need more Steveson on the mat, not less.

Wrestling has a loyal following, but that small base will only carry us so far. Our attention should shift to a bigger population that doesn’t understand wrestling but wants to be engaged.

The Olympics can always be the focal point of wrestling but highlighting the best wrestling has to offer is a must as we work to improve. A signature event once every four years won’t cut it.

(Kyle Klingman, the former director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, is an editorial content provider for Flowrestling.)