No More Olympic Wrestling?: A Gendered Perspective

With the exception of 1900, wrestling has been in every modern Olympic Games since 1896. This past February, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to cut wrestling from the Olympics due to reported low attendance, poor television ratings, and general lack of popularity. Wrestling has two different styles at the Olympic level, Greco-Roman and freestyle. Both will be offered in in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. However come 2020, wrestling – a sport with historic Olympic roots – will likely be slashed from the Olympic platform. In this post David Mayeda explains why the IOC’s decision is a slap in the face to women’s and girls’ sport.

3-time Olympic Gold medallist Saori Yoshida

Wrestling is a sport that is dear to my heart. I didn’t go that far with it, stopping after high school to pursue a collegiate track and field journey. Still, I’ll brag a bit about my high school wrestling team. Typically one of the less popular American high school sports, our team had over 100 athletes when I was a freshman. Four years later as a senior, we still had around 80 wrestlers on the team, and we were damn good, winning league championships at every level all four years I was there.

But “wrestling” at my high school actually meant “boys wrestling.” The sport was normalized as a masculine, males-only sport. You didn’t have to qualify naming it as “boys wrestling,” because everyone automatically assumed girls didn’t participate as wrestlers, or that women didn’t lead as coaches. As sociologists, we are trained to question that which is presented as normal – to expose the social forces that construct our everyday lives.

Historically, sport was divided along very gendered lines, even more so than in present time. In early twentieth century United States, sports like boxing, basketball, and track and field were developed as male-only athletic terrain. In contrast, tennis, swimming, and golf, were sports where women could participate with a bit more flexibility. Society’s leaders of that time argued that the physical contact between athletes in sports like boxing and basketball, or the heavy pounding involved in track and field events (e.g., powerful running and jumping) jeopardized women’s reproductive organs. Thus, if women were allowed participation in sport at all, it would have to be in sports that supposedly preserved women’s ability to bear children. Notably, when women did partake in sports like basketball, they were stigmatized for acting in ways that violated “proper” womanhood.

Ultimately what these sporting trends illustrate is (1) how women were valued in society, and (2) how sport was used as a social institution to preserve values that privileged men. Clearly, women were (and often still are) valued primarily for their ability to reproduce. Women’s general exclusion from sport coincided with the gendered dimensions of work. Just as men were freer to partake in the public spaces of work and assert their financial autonomy, they could also celebrate their public participation in sport, using certain sports as a medium through which to showcase their alleged physical superiority over women. Women on the other hand, were confined to the private realm of the family, encouraged to partake in sport only if participation reaffirmed their status as mothers and home makers. For males, less constrained involvement in work and sport meant a distancing from the family, a distancing from being caring fathers and partners.

Okay, this has been an entirely depressing post thus far. The fact is, women and girls fought for their right to be athletes in a variety of sports, and long before the women’s movements of the 1970s. With regard to the Olympic Games, it has been a lengthy series of struggles that led to the first women’s marathon race back in 1980, to women finally participating in the pole vault and triple jump in 2000, to women’s freestyle wrestling introduced in 2004, and women’s boxing finally entering the Olympics in 2012. Uh, and no, not that it really matters, but for the record, participation in such events and sports has not harmed women’s ability to have kids.

And did you know, Massachusetts just crowned its first state female wrestling champion, Danielle Coughlin, who won her high school state title by competing with (er, defeating) the boys? In some states like Hawai’i, girls wrestling is so popular that it boasts its own infrastructure with their own high school teams and state wrestling tournament. Olympic bronze medallist Clarissa Chun is part of Hawai’i’s wrestling legacy. Japan is probably the country with the most successful female wrestlers. Saori Yoshida has won Olympic gold at all three Olympic Games that included women, with two of her teammates – Hitomi Obara and Kaori Icho – also winning Olympic gold in 2012. Canada is also producing a strong legacy in wrestling with Tonya Verbeek medalling in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and Carol Huynh winning gold in 2008 and bronze in 2012.

Indeed, the IOC’s decision to cut Olympic wrestling in 2020 is a tragedy for the many male wrestlers who struggle to succeed in a non-revenue producing sport. But even more so it is a slap in the face to the female wrestlers who struggled for so long just to be included in a sport with such rich Olympic tradition. Now that female wrestlers have finally broken through a sporting glass ceiling and can compete alongside their male comrades, it’s taken away. Message to the IOC: Keep Wrestling in the Olympics!

Dig deeper:

  1. Explain how sport has been used as a social institution to maintain traditional gender roles.
  2. Identify sports in contemporary society that are considered socially acceptable for women and men; describe how society’s perception of certain sports reinforces social gender norms.
  3. What do you think about women/girls competing in combat sports like wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts? Where do you think your opinions on this issue come from?
  4. From a corporate money-making standpoint, why do you feel the IOC has cut wrestling despite its rich Olympic tradition?

Suggested further reading: Cahn, S. K. (1994). Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Photo via Wikicommons.