Wrestling, arguably the world's oldest sport and an Olympic staple, was dropped from the Olympic Games in a decision that shocked the sports world. Bleacher Report sat down with 1996 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kurt Angle to discuss the decision that turned his world upside down.
Jonathan Snowden: Great to talk to you again. Sorry this isn't coming at a better time.
Kurt Angle: Yeah, I know. You're right.
Jonathan Snowden: Yesterday we learned that the International Olympic Committee made the flabbergasting decision to drop wrestling, one of the world's oldest sports, from the Olympic Games. Wrestling was the second event added to the Ancient Games after running. Its tradition and legacy is unquestioned. Were you as shocked as I was?
Kurt Angle: I believe we in wrestling kind of dropped the ball. FILA, which is the world governing body of wrestling, never thought that the IOC would ever really drop wrestling. So we didn't have any representation at the IOC meeting. There were probably a lot of other representatives from things like the pentathlon, which is the sport they were supposed to drop...I was told the IOC President's son is a pentathlete. And he's also on the committee. The modern pentathlon is a dying sport. It's one of the least competitive sports and one of the lower revenue producing sports. People aren't really very interested in the modern pentathlon. IT was the one that was supposed to get dropped and in the last hour, they picked wrestling instead.
I think, in a lot of ways, we made a mistake. We took things for granted when we thought they would never even consider dropping us. And they did. Now we have to fight to get it back.
Jonathan Snowden: To me there are a handful of sports that deal with man's primal instincts. Who can run faster? Who's stronger? Who is tougher? And that's what wrestling teaches you in my opinion—toughness. I've seen John Smith and Cael Sanderson. So I know technique plays a role. But would you say it's true that a lot of wrestling is being able to endure more than the other guy?
Kurt Angle: I believe wrestling represents the whole Olympic experience. It has everything. Strength, speed, finesse. I don't think anything has more technique. And it's a combat sport. When you look at the other combat sports—judo, tae kwon do and boxing—they're not nearly as competitive as wrestling is worldwide. So you wonder why they would pick wrestling, the oldest sport in the world. I don't want to pick on any other sport, but there were a lot of sports on the table that could have been dropped, and for some reason, they weren't.
Jonathan Snowden: I love that you mentioned how truly global Olympic wrestling is. Japan, Mongolia, Siberia, Iran, Cuba—they compete in wrestling on every continent across the world. Is that what makes it special?
Kurt Angle: Wrestling, right now, there is no one country dominating. Russia used to dominate. Then Turkey and Iran started getting in there. Then the United States of America became the dominant country. And then all of the sudden it kind of dispersed everywhere. No one country is earning numerous gold medals or medals period. It's across the board. To drop this sport, with so many competitive countries, really baffles me.
Jonathan Snowden: What will this do to the sport in America?
Kurt Angle: To drop it now, at a peak, when the United States is working hard to produce gold medals is rough. We had the dream team in 1996—me and (Bruce) Baumgartner and the Brands and Kendall Cross. It was really hard to put together...Now that we're stronger than ever, all these kids who dream of winning a gold medal may never be able to. I can't imagine doing all that wrestling without being able to say, 'One day I'm going to wrestle for the gold medal.'
We are building back to being a world power. We were very fortunate to win two gold medals in the last Olympic Games where the competition was so fierce. Scholastic wrestling in the United States is at a peak, the most wrestlers we've seen since 1980. Right now. And back then you had more than 300 Division I wrestling schools. Now you only have about 120.
Jonathan Snowden: What about in the rest of the world?
Kurt Angle: It's hard to believe that some of these other countries aren't going to be fighting just as hard to get it back. For a lot of these countries, especially the Eastern European countries, they only have two or three sports. They have wrestling and weightlifting. Or wrestling and soccer. They're probably even more upset than the United States is. We have a bunch of sports. Those countries only have a couple. It's what they live for.
When I wrestled in the Olympics in 1996, half the crowd was Iranian even though it was in Atlanta. The other half was the United States and every other part of the world. They show up and they get rowdy and they get crazy. This was Iran's sport and they were very good at it. I can't imagine how these other countries are feeling right now.
Jonathan Snowden: I remember hearing people wonder how you would handle a hostile crowd as a pro wrestler and thinking this guy has been the foreigner in Turkey and Russia—I think he can handle it. Did you face some tough crowds as an amateur overseas?
Kurt Angle: I wrestled in Russia in front of 16,000 people. I won a tournament there that only four Americans have ever won. Those countries, they love their wrestling. Five million Russians participate in wrestling every year. That's more than all our athletes combined. That's how strong wrestling is over there.
It's not just the United States that's going to be fighting for wrestling. It's going to be the rest of the world. Asia, the United States, Cuba, Germany, the former Eastern bloc countries, Russia and the former Russian Republics, Mongolia. I've heard Japan, if they get the Olympics in 2020, they're going to demand wrestling. And they're one of the favorites to get it.
There's a meeting in September and FILA is going to be there. And we have to show the history of wrestling, how the Olympics got started and the popularity of wrestling worldwide. And, God willing, instead of another sport, they'll replace wrestling with wrestling.
Jonathan Snowden: I don't want to get you embroiled in a bunch of controversy. But we've all read about the corruption that kind of surrounds the Olympics. Do we really need a Russian oil baron who loves wrestling to deliver a suitcase of cash somewhere? Is that how this game is really played?
Kurt Angle: Anything is possible. If the son of the IOC president can take a dying sport like modern pentathlon and keep it in the Olympics and throw out wrestling instead, then anything is possible. You don't want to do anything corrupt, but anything is possible. It wouldn't surprise me and if anyone loves wrestling enough to do something like that it would be Russia.
They'll do anything to save the sport of wrestling. They are wrestling. Wrestling is not an American sport. We have our own tradition and our own kind of wrestling, but that's not our sport. We worked hard to become a power in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, but it didn't derive from us. It's from Europe and Russia. It's their sport.
For us to be the best in their sport is like them beating us at something like basketball. It's not supposed to happen. It took us a long time, but we became a world power. It's become our sport too. And we have to fight for it.
Jonathan Snowden: We know how important the Olympics were to you without you saying a word. We just have to look at what you endured to get there. Jason Loukides and the throw that kind of changed your world.
Kurt Angle: It was the semifinals of the U.S. Open. An arm throw and I tried to get my other arm up to stop it and I couldn't get it up in time. I landed right on top of my head. I broke four vertebrae in my neck. Three discs slid directly into my spinal cord.
The worst thing is that I landed on my head because I didn't want to give up the points. And I ended up giving up the points anyway. So, I wrestled with my neck broken and came back to win 4-3. Then I had to wait eight hours and take on two-time Olympian Kerry McCoy in the finals. I won against him in double overtime and still hadn't realized my neck was broken.
Jonathan Snowden: Most people would have taken that victory and walked away.
Kurt Angle: I went back to Pittsburgh and saw a doctor. He said 'Your neck is broken and you have three discs that need to be operated on. You're done.' I refused to hear that so I went to another doctor for his approval. And he said no. Finally I found a doctor named Gilian Bales who said, 'You can wrestle, but the only way you're going to wrestler is if we stick your neck with 12 shots of Novocaine. So you can't feel it. You're going to have excruciating pain when the Novocaine wears off, but it's the only way you can do it because you can't use Cortisone. It's illegal in the Olympics.'
Jonathan Snowden: You overcame that adversity to win the gold medal, in my opinion one of the great sports stories ever. But it was close to never happening. Murtazaliev from the Ukraine nearly ended it all with a fireman's carry. People don't come back down three in the Olympics. What gave you the confidence to come back from that?
Kurt Angle: Thank God I didn't panic. When you wrestle a Russian and are down three points, it's nearly impossible to make it back. You start making mistakes because you get desperate. I kept in my mind that all I needed was one takedown. I focused on scoring just one point.
With about 1:20 left I got the leg and he fought it hard, for about 20 seconds. Wouldn't let me have it. But I got the takedown, got him down and knew I had to gutwrench him. That's worth two points. I stuck the gutwrench on and cranked just as hard as I could.
When I turned him over there was about 40 seconds left. Right when I turned him he put his hands on his face like, 'Oh, man, I screwed up.' I knew that I'd cracked him. I cracked him mentally. I got up and he was tired. I wasn't and I scored another takedown to win 4-3.
It was a blessing. I didn't panic. A lot of guys will panic and shoot bad shots and then the Russians will spin around you and score. I just concentrated on one takedown and was able to do it.
Jonathan Snowden: Wrestling remains a huge part of your life, the professional variety with TNA, live Thursday nights on Spike TV. You guys will be going on the road, starting in Chicago...how important is it to take a few steps away from Orlando and see how the act plays in front of different fans around the country?
Kurt Angle: It's awesome. Thank God we finally have the ability to do what the WWE does and go city to city and get fresh crowds. This is a big step for TNA. To do it within 10 years, to basically be able to tour the whole nation, this is huge.
Every time we do it we get great crowds. We have a great crowd back in Orlando too, but it's the same people. After awhile you aren't really ruling the people. The people rule you. They're so spoiled. They get it every week. And the ones who aren't there every week are tourists who know nothing about wrestling.
This just shows the growth that TNA has had. How we've been able to grow the last five years—and I'm just proud to be part of it.
Jonathan Snowden: TNA Lockdown, which is kind of your WrestleMania, is coming up in March. There's a lot going on these days with Aces and Eights, you've got the world champion Jeff Hardy. What will we see from Kurt Angle at Lockdown?
Kurt Angle: I have a match with a second generation wrestler named Wes Brisco. His uncle was Jack Brisco and his dad is Gerry Brisco, who works with WWE. Wes is a very young wrestler. My job is to go in there and have the best match I can with him.
He's very young and very inexperienced. But they trust me to get in there and have a five-star match with him. Is my work cut out for me? Yeah. But Wes is a talented kid. He has big shoes to fill. He's dealing with the top guy in the company and he has to step up. And if he doesn't? That's going to set him back. To his credit, he's really excited about it.
Kurt Angle appears weekly on TNA Impact, Thursday nights on Spike TV.