After seven months in limbo, wrestling is back in the Olympics, and one of the most successful and popular athletes in the sport couldn’t be happier.
“I’m pumped man,” said Olympic gold medalist and Sicklerville, NJ native Jordan Burroughs. “I’m super excited.”
Wrestling was reinstated for the 2020 Games on Sunday when the IOC overturned a decision many members thought was a mistake.
The sport, which has ancient roots in the Olympics, easily defeated bids from baseball, softball and squash. It will now join the program of the 2020 Games, which were awarded to Tokyo on Saturday.
Burroughs, who has become the poster boy for US wrestling since winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics in London, spoke to NBC10 last February when the IOC made their initial decision. He described his reaction as “a little bit of anger mixed with sadness.”
“I was thinking about wrestling in 2020,” Burroughs said. “But, any thought I had about wrestling in 2020 is basically…well, I’ve got nothing now.”
Since that decision, Burroughs did his part to help convince the IOC to change their position.
“I did as much as I could,” Burroughs said on Sunday. “Obviously, me contributing with my athletic abilities and just trying to garner notoriety for the sport was really important and just doing all I could to be a voice that could be heard while I was still competing. It was really important for me even though I might not have the opportunity to compete in 2020. I know a lot of young wrestlers who will.”
The wrestling body FILA did their part as well, embarking on a frantic six-month campaign to save its Olympic status.
“We are aware of our mistakes and they will not happen again,” FILA President Nenad Lalovic said. “This crisis gave us the strength to change and we finally found out that we can change. This was the most valuable experience of this entire journey.”
Wrestling's reinstatement appeared virtually assured for months after IOC members acknowledged that the executive board erred by cutting the sport in the first place. Burroughs claims he was confident his beloved sport would return but still a bit nervous.
“I think we had a great chance and opportunity to be back in the Olympic games,” Burroughs said. “We put a lot of people in the right position to lobby for wrestling. We had a lot of financial backing and a lot of support from athletes and organizations throughout the world. I was extremely confident but we still had that little bit of doubt that we wouldn’t receive the final vote.”
Burroughs is still unsure however, why the IOC dropped it from the list of core sports in the first place.
“At this point I think it’s just speculation,” Burroughs said. “It could be because they thought we weren’t modern enough, didn’t have enough gender equality or thought the sport was boring or difficult for fans to understand. There were a lot of different reasons that were on the table. But at this point I think wrestling has done a good job of overhauling the ruling system, creating gender equality and just proving to the IOC and to the world that we’re a great sport.”
During today’s decision, IOC President Jacques Rogge claimed that wrestling has shown “great passion and resilience in the last few months.”
“They have taken a number of steps to modernize and improve their sport,” Rogge said.
FILA reworked its structure, giving women and athletes a role in decision making. It added two weight classes for women. It also adopted rule changes to make the sport easier to understand and more fun to watch, and reward more aggressive wrestling.
Powerful countries and unlikely political allies like the United States, Iran and Russia threw their weight behind the campaign. Wrestling was approved by the IOC on Sunday as an “additional sport” for 2020 and 2024. FILA's goal now is to win back a place in the list of 25 “core” sports.
“We have to understand that in four years we will have to compete again to become a core sport,” Lalovic said. “So we can't stop now. What we have to do in four years is more difficult, maybe.”
Burroughs believes the attention towards wrestling will grow even more in light of the IOC’s decision.
“I think we’re going to become a spectacle in the Olympic games now knowing that we were on the chopping block for the last six or seven months,” Burroughs said. “In Rio I think we will definitely be under a watchful eye of the IOC and the rest of the world to see the changes that we’ve made. Everyone’s just going to be like, ‘Okay, they’re on the chopping block, they’re back in, they’ve made changes. Now let’s see what they’ve done to help improve the sport and make it more watchable.’”
So now that wrestling is a guarantee for the 2020 Olympics, will Burroughs decide to compete in Tokyo? The gold medalist is unsure at this point.
“I don’t know man, I’ll be 32,” Burroughs said. “The average age for a wrestler is in their mid to late 20’s. I’ll be a little bit over the hill. But I may decide to compete. 2016 is in my crosshairs right now but after that comes, I’ll reevaluate my career.”
Regardless of the decision he makes, Burroughs remains grateful not only for the IOC’s decision, but also for the impact wrestling has had on his own life.
“Beyond the Olympics, for me there are a bunch of characteristics that have helped me become successful in life,” Burroughs said. “Wrestling has helped me learn discipline, perseverance and hard work. All those characteristics teach you to be not only a great athlete but a great man. It’s been a huge sport for me, extremely competitive. It’s a lot like life.”