Canadian wrestlers' Olympic dreams still alive

Wrestling has been shortlisted for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics, but work remains to convince IOC officials the sport is relevant and should be added over squash and a joint bid of baseball and softball, says Canadian three-time medallist Tonya Verbeek.

3-time medallist Verbeek excited about sport's future

Canada's Tonya Verbeek believes Canadians have a chance to save Olympic wrestling. "We need to think that way because we'll be proactive instead of worrying," says the three-time Olympic medallist. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Tonya Verbeek has allowed herself to imagine an Olympics without wrestling since it was surprisingly dropped in February from the list of core sports for the 2020 Summer Games.

Sadness and disappointment are among the emotions the three-time Olympic medallist has felt during those times, but she also maintains a positive outlook.

"I think of the young kids. You feel upset that their [Olympic] dreams might be taken away," Verbeek said in a phone interview from her hometown of Thorold, Ont. "We still have a chance [to save Olympic wrestling]. We need to think that way because we’ll be proactive instead of worrying."

Verbeek expressed a sense of "relief" following Wednesday’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee that wrestling is shortlisted, along with squash and a joint bid of baseball and softball, for a single opening on the 2020 Summer Games lineup.

The IOC general assembly will make a final vote on Sept. 8 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Wrestling dates back to the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, and was part of the Ancient Games, making it "hard to overlook wrestling" for reinstatement, according to Wrestling Canada president Don Ryan.

Still, Verbeek said, Wrestling Canada and the sport’s other organizations around the world must make the public aware that wrestling belongs in the Olympics and needs their support.

"We’re excited about the future of wrestling within our country," she said.

Significant change

Verbeek started wrestling in 1993 at age 16 when it was first offered in high school, and she has witnessed a significant change in the sport over the years.

"Now it’s being exposed to young girls and even our youth program with the boys," said Verbeek, who recently joined Wrestling Canada in a newly created role as talent identification coach. "We’re starting them younger here in Canada and it’s great."

In nearby St. Catharines, Ont., kids from the age of six are involved in the Brock (University) Junior Badgers wrestling program, competing and practising three times a week as an introduction to the sport, Verbeek said.

In her new job, Verbeek will be on several high-performance wrestling tours this summer including the world championships, University Games, those at the junior level as well as camps and other high-level competitions.

Her mission is to identify athletes and find a way to keep them active at a high-performance level.

"I have been fortunate being part of the national program and exposed to leadership and being involved in some of the decision making at some level," said the 36-year-old. "We are moving in the right direction and we need to continue keeping athletes involved as advocates of our sport during their retirement [years]."

Canadian athletes have won 16 Olympic wrestling medals, all in freestyle (as opposed to Greco-Roman), since 1908.

The sport has largely remained a part of the Olympic conversation since February after wrestling officials worldwide heeded the IOC’s call to modernize the sport, complete with an updated constitution, more committees that are athlete-friendly and involve females, and rule changes that include expanded weight classes for women at the Olympics.

New leadership

Serbian Nenad Lalovic was elected president of FILA, wrestling’s international federation, to replace Switzerland’s Raphael Martinetti and has brought a "breath of fresh air" with his leadership, said Ryan.

The new rules, approved by FILA in Moscow earlier this month, will be in effect Friday in Niagara Falls, Ont., where the top female wrestlers from Canada, the United States and Ukraine compete in the 2013 Battle at the Falls International Women’s Wrestling Duals.

"We continue to showcase wrestling and have other events coming up," Ryan said. "And the 2020 committed, chaired by [2008 Olympic wrestling champion] Carol Huynh, will be meeting next week on a conference call to come up with strategies [to better our Olympic chances]."

The new rules include:

  • Cumulative scoring for the entire match.
  • Two three-minute sessions instead of three two-minute periods.
  • Takedowns are now worth two points, making it more valuable than a single point for a pushout or penalty point
  • In freestyle, the first passivity call will be awarded with a verbal warning. In the second instance, a 30-second clock will begin. Should an athlete not score in that period, a caution and a point will be awarded to the opponent of the passive athlete. If no wrestler scores in the first two minutes of a match, referees must select one of the athletes as passive. In this case, the passive wrestler must score within 30 seconds or the opponent is rewarded with a point.

Wrestlers will now have to train to score, Canadian national women’s wrestling coach Leigh Vierling told reporters on a conference call.

"What we were finding with the rules over the last two Olympics, with the [two-mi nute period], was a less-skilled athlete could step on the mat with a goal of being tactical and not [make anything] happen and maybe capitalizing if an athlete made a mistake," he said. "But, really, their goal was to not to wrestle.

"Over a longer period, it’s going to be harder to shut out a more skilled wrestler or fitter wrestler. These rules are going to help us have clear, decisive winners and a little less referee involvement, hopefully."

Ryan, who said the process has "made our wrestling fraternity and community come together from the grassroots to the high-performance levels" worldwide, is cautiously optimistic that wrestling will remain an Olympic sport.

"This is a sport that’s done province-wide [in Canada]," he said. "It’s for girls and guys. You can be a small person, you can be a large person. It’s a very fair sport and a great sport for bettering self-esteem, self-awareness and it doesn’t take a lot of finances or technical equipment.

"The ramifications of it being removed from the Olympic Games could be substantial."