Wrestlers’ teetering Olympic dreams start in Vegas

Want to get an amateur wrestling fan upset? Bring up World Wrestling Entertainment or drop a Vince McMahon reference on him.

But if you really want to get a wrestling fan mad, do what the International Olympic Committee is seeking to do: Eliminate the sport from the games.

The IOC’s plan to drop wrestling after the 2016 Olympics in Brazil has caused a worldwide backlash and allowed countries such as the United States and Iran to have a common ground to fight.

And as this country’s best descend upon the Las Vegas Convention Center for this week’s U.S. Open National Championships, they do so with a wary eye toward September when the IOC will decide whether or not wrestling stays in the Olympics.

This week’s competition at the Convention Center, which gets under way today with men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman, begins a new Olympic cycle. In each category, the top seven finishers in each weight class will qualify for the U.S. World Team Trials on June 21 and 22 in Stillwater, Okla.

The World Championships are scheduled for Sept. 16 to 22 in Budapest, Hungary, so the long road to Rio de Janeiro for American Olympic hopefuls starts in Las Vegas. They also will return here in September 2015 when the World Championships will be held at Orleans Arena.

But those competing this week can’t help but wonder what lies beyond 2016.

“I don’t think the IOC realized the implications of its decision,” said U.S. Olympian Coleman Scott, who is the country’s top 132-pound wrestler and will compete this week in Las Vegas after winning a bronze medal in London last summer. “The Olympics are the pinnacle of our sport. Every kid that starts out in wrestling dreams of one day competing in the Olympics and winning a gold medal.

“I’m 26. I’ve been to the Olympics. I’ve lived my dream. But there are kids who have devoted a lot of time to wrestling that are chasing their dream. It’s not fair to deny them that opportunity.”

If Rich Bender has his way, those dreams will continue unabated. The executive director of USA Wrestling has been working behind the scenes to get the IOC to see the error of its ways and restore wrestling to the Olympic movement since its decision in February to drop wrestling from the 25 core sports.

“There are 177 countries that compete in organized wrestling worldwide,” Bender said. “Wrestling is strong around the world. It was a decision that no one expected. But since the decision, wrestling has been in the fishbowl. It has received unprecedented attention and cast a light on the sport we rarely get to see.”

Through social media and traditional media streams, wrestling fans are making their voices heard. But whether it will be enough to make the IOC change its mind remains to be seen. The IOC’s executive board meets next month to determine whether or not to add as many as three sports. Wrestling is on that list of possible additions, as are baseball and softball, both of which previously were contested in the Olympics.

But the big vote comes in Argentina in September when the IOC’s general assembly votes whether or not wrestling stays or goes. Bender and his colleagues from other countries are lobbying for a positive result on that critical vote. And on the eve of this country’s first major competition since London last summer, Bender was optimistic that everything will work out in the end.

“There’s a lot of passion within the wrestling movement,” he said. “We have a history that’s strong, and we look at this as an opportunity to improve the sport in terms of roles and leadership.

“I believe the angels are with us, and I think our chances are good.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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