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Wrestling too fundamental to leave Olympics, coach says
Posted: February 19th, 2013 @ 5:48pm
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
You needn't be a sociologist or an expert in the technical elements of the sport to understand the essence of wrestling, Paul Ragusa believes.
"Anyone who has kids, what do your kids do? They grab each other and they wrestle," said Ragusa, the Kingston man who has competed or coached in five different Olympic Games. "It's rudimentary in our nature.
"Some continue to wrestle the rest of our lives, some stop," he said, chuckling, "but it's one of the oldest sports, if not the oldest sport, in the Olympic Games and I think tearing that history out will have quite an impact. I think it's really important to keep that history in the Olympic Games."
Ragusa said he was not alone in being taken by surprise by last week's decision by a committee of the International Olympic Committee to remove freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from the core group of Olympic sports, as of 2020. "Our whole organization was taken aback," he said.
As recently as last summer's London Olympics - where one of the athletes Ragusa coaches, Carol Huynh, won a bronze medal - there was nothing in the wind that the sport's Olympic future might be compromised.
"Not at all," Ragusa said. "It wasn't even on the radar. There was no indication from our international federation that this was even at risk. I'm quite surprised that if something like this was in the works the international governing body didn't have its finger on the pulse but apparently they didn't."
In light of last week's development, FILA president Raphael Martinetti Saturday resigned his post.
"Our international federation has been a structure that everyone feared," Ragusa said. "The fact that they didn't know that this was coming definitely is a problem.
"This will be a good shakeup, a definite wakeup call for the way they conduct themselves, the way they make decisions."
Aside from the fundamental nature of the sport and a history that dates to the ancient Games in Greece, Ragusa said what people within the wrestling community find puzzling is how the IOC may be prepared to turn its back on a sport that fulfills a basic criterion for games participation. In London, male and female athletes from 44 countries took part; in 18 wrestling events the medals were spread among competitors from 22 different nations on five continents.
"You don't have just a few countries winning all the medals," Ragusa said.
Ragusa started wrestling in high school, encouraged to give it a try by some buddies with whom he'd played football at Holy Cross in Grade 9. "I fell in love with it," Ragusa recalled. Pretty soon Ragusa was practising seriously and by the time he was in Grade 13, he was on the national team. It wasn't long before Olympic dreams started dancing in his head.
"Absolutely," he said. "As I started to progress - that was the ultimate goal, to try and make the Olympic Games.
"It's a real important element for our sport."
Without it, Ragusa said, proponents fear for wrestling's future.
"This decision will devastate our sport," he said. "It could crush it. There will be kids who won't participate because it's not in the Olympics."
That, Ragusa believes, would be a shame. In addition to the discipline and dedication that's required to be successful in any athletic endeavour, there are certain elements that make wrestling unique.
"Anybody can participate," he said. "It's not an expensive sport. You don't have to be rich to wrestle. Any body type (can compete). It's not about whether you're short or tall, it allows for anybody to participate."
Fostering an individual's ability to perform under pressure, however, is the element of wrestling that stands above all others, Ragusa says.
"It's second to none," he said. "In wrestling your strengths and weaknesses are exposed for everyone to see. You're out there by yourself and whether you win or lose, it's all on you. For someone to put themselves out there like that, on their own, is pretty impressive.
"You have a team behind you, you have coaches and training partners and people pulling for you but when you win it's addictive because it's all on you. When you lose, it's the same thing. It's your loss. That's why you have such an emotional roller coaster, the highs are so high and the lows are so low.
"It's not a sport you do recreationally. Even if you don't succeed at a high level, the amount of energy and work that you put into it is extremely high. I'm not saying it's higher than any other sport. I think people in all sports at a high level work hard, but it is a pretty gruelling sport, punishing on your body and your mind."
Ragusa says the sport is not without blame for finding itself in its current situation. Wrestling must examine itself before it begins to lobby to regain a seat at the athletic grown-ups' table.
"It's pretty easy to pit sports against each other and I don't think that's fair to do," he said. "What we have to do is look at the governance of our own federation and what we do. Are we making the right decisions for the right reasons?"
For one thing, Ragusa said, the international body has been too cavalier with how the sport is regulated. "They keep changing the rules and there's no rationale behind it. You're not told why and - you know what? If you keep changing the rules over and over again, people can't follow it.
"If you have someone who wrestled 15 years ago and they watch a wrestling match today, and they have no clue what is going on - I think you have a problem there. If someone came in and watched a wrestling match and can't figure out who's winning or what the scoring system is, that's been a problem in our sport.
"There's a lot of things you can do to make it more spectator friendly."
Last weekend Ragusa, a coach at the University of Calgary, helpd the Dinos qualify four women and six men for the national university meet March 1-2 in London. Meanwhile, Ragusa will travel next week to Mongolia with Canada's national team for the World Cup tournament, an event reserved for the top eight countries on the globe. Ragusa coaches four of the seven members of the Canadian team.
If he had an opportunity to try and convince an IOC member to retain wrestling as a core Olympic sport, Ragusa said he would ask the person to reflect on both the mandate and the spirit of the Games.
"If they look at the criteria that they've set for participation, wrestling meets all of it and is actually head and shoulders above some of the mainstream sports," he said. "You have one of the oldest sports, from both the ancient and modern Games, a core sport that you're going to tear out of the Olympics.
"Are you going to tear the heart out of it? I don't know, but ultimately you're eliminating some of the history that is good for young people to know about."
Wrestling is not just about history, Ragusa is quick to remind. It's also a core element of mixed martial arts, a relative newcomer to the sporting mosaic but one whose mainstream popularity has eclipsed traditional wrestling.
"Where does George St. Pierre train?" Ragusa asked of one of MMA'sicons.
"He trains at a wrestling club."
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