When the IOC announced its decision to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games last week, the waves of reaction ranging from disappointment to devastation rippled around the world. Athletes, coaches and even Russian President Vladimir Putin began organizing to fight the decision, which impacts not only male wrestlers, but female athletes as well.
Women's wrestling has been an Olympic event since 2004, and the sport is on the rise throughout the U.S. and the world. In fact, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (2010-11 participation study) ,women's wrestling is the fastest-growing high school sport in the United States (based on percentage increase) with more than 8,000 female student-athletes participating.
Terry Fike, head coach of the women's wrestling program at Lock Haven University has been working for years to develop the sport. Officially listed as a club on the LHU website, the team enjoys support from the university similar to that of varsity teams, and hopes to begin offering scholarships as early as next year. The Lady Eagles compete mainly against Canadian college programs, although about 20 American universities offer the sport. The Lock Haven program has enjoyed significant success, including watching graduate, Sara McMann become the first American woman wrestler to win an Olympic silver medal.
Always campaigning for the sport, Coach Fike wonders if expanding women's wrestling could help save the event in the Olympics, and wrestling in general.
"Particularly here in the U.S. where there are a number of issues," he said, "Adding women's wrestling increases the numbers, impact and amount of interest in the sport."
Wrestling has long struggled with challenges of Title IX, federal legislation that ensures opportunities for women, because in most high schools and colleges, there is still no female counterpart. Fike believes women's wrestling could make Title IX the sport's ally rather than an enemy.
"Adding a women's program makes wrestling more viable for everyone," he said. "From a financial standpoint, it's expanding the demographics and making it more attractive because you don't need to spend much more money where you already have the facilities."
On the high school level, several states hold championships for women's wrestling, including Texas and California. In 2012, Pennsylvania offered its first all-women's championship, hosted by the PA Amateur Wrestling Federation and sanctioned by USA wrestling - more than 175 student-athletes participated.
So as wrestling stands at a crossroads internationally, Fike says legendary names like Iowa's Tom Brands and Dan Gable are supportive of expanding the sport for women. That means providing the opportunities to compete, to cultivate character, and to strive for the pinnacle of the sport: the Olympic Games.
"It's universal; it's been around forever," said Fike, "in every culture, every year of history, art, music literature, religion, and it's never going to go away. But those of us involved need to make it available for everyone who wants to compete."
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.