A Long Slow Divorce

American & Iranian Embrace

When I was a kid, I was a true sports fan. I read books from the 50’s and 60’s of improbable feats of heroism by ordinary athletes and teams. I religiously watched the Cubs, Bears and Blackhawks play on television and listened on radio. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat ran through my veins. I swung a baseball bat for hours alone perfecting my swing and pitched tennis balls endlessly against a garage or brick wall with visions of a major league career running through my head. I galloped through backyard football games with a ball tucked under my arm like the ghost of Gale Sayers, replaying in my mind each night the highlight reel of my performance. I even played makeup hockey games with any objects I could find for pucks and sticks.

My idealistic world of sports began unraveling when Wertz terminated the contract with WGN, relegating hockey to the snowy underworld of UHF TV. I was probably 9 or 10. I lost my taste for hockey and never regained it. A long, slow divorce with my love of sports had begun. 

I was too young yet to appreciate fully why the Bears home games were not televised. I was very much cognizant; however, of the betrayal I felt when my beloved Cubs traded away Bill Matlock after he won the National League batting crown the previous year. The beginning of free agency did much damage to my preteen sports psyche. My heroes were not supposed to be traded away like commodities or worse, abandon loyalty to the Cubbie Blue. Ken Holtzman, Ron Santo and others followed.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a new sport. The 1972 Olympics in Munich featured what may be the most renowned American freestyle wrestling team our country has known, led by the inimitable Dan Gable. The sports ideal was rekindled in me  by amateur wrestling as professional sports began to taste sour. I became a wrestler that year.

Most teenage boys probably find other things that are as alluring, or more, than sports. I was no different. I ran track, played football and baseball, and I wrestled through my teen years, abandoning one by one until only wrestling remained. I carried wrestling into college where academics and other things took on more importance. The ideal of sports gave way to other ideals: the pursuit of knowledge, faith, and a soul mate, among others.

Sports are a common denominator and topic of discussion and debate. It is part of our culture. Sports performances can be ennobling. Who does not remember the inspired performance of the underdog 1980 Olympic Hockey team’s win over the Goliath Soviet Union? Michael Jordan’s ability to carry the Bulls to victory on his shoulders and to hit that last jump shot at the buzzer to synch the victory is the stuff of legend. But the luster had long begun to fade for me by the time those moments arrived.

Michael Jordan was human. He gambled. He had a midlife sports crisis. He got divorced. Baseball, football and hockey strikes and lock outs each took their toll. As time goes on, it seems that money is the only common theme that runs through sports, obscene amounts of it. Money dominates talk of college football and college sports (all wanting a piece of the golden pie). Money, too, it turns out, runs through the veins of the Olympic movement, which seems to have stalled into the sludge of creeping commercialism.

The Olympic ideal began to tarnish with Communist regimes fashioning state sponsored, hand-picked athletes into finally tuned and performance enhanced machines. The fiction of amateur status could not be maintained. The victory of the US hockey team in 1980 was all the more legendary for the fact that the team was David taking on the state paid Soviet giant. Now any professional can play in the Olympics. The professionals have not alonly tarnished the shiny Olympic finish, they have cheapened the games. Basketball in the Olympics is just a side show for the NBA. Golf, which was slated to replace wrestling in 2020, will just be an excursion from the professional tour.

I do not watch professional sports – very rarely – anymore. I have not watched a full baseball, football, hockey or basketball game in years. I do not go to professional sports events. I cannot see see past the taint of money.

My sports heroes are my sons who wrestled since they were 8 and 6 respectively. They and their fellow (men and women) wrestlers have gained my admiration and respect and remind me of what is good and wholesome and inspiring in sports. The hard work and dedication is unparalleled. There is no fame or fortune awaiting them. They do it only for the thrill of victory. They forge their character in the agony of defeat and the countless hours, the blood and the sweat, the focus and commitment it takes to overcome fears and doubts, temptations to take an easier road and all of the obstacles that life can bring to gain the ultimate prize of being, simply, the best of the best.

My 23 year old announced in December, after 15 years of wrestling against the best in the State, the Country and the World, that he was done. He spent the last 5+ years chasing the Olympic dream, coming within sight of it, yet being just out of its grasp. The injuries demanded their price. The sacrifices no longer made sense. It was not the way he hoped it would end, but there is a season for everything under the sun. That season is now over. The journey built deep character and will be cherished.

Just last week the elite executive board of the International Olympic Committee announced its recommendation to drop wrestling from the Olympics beginning in 2020. It came like a slap in the face. What could be more Olympic than wrestling? What is more characteristic of the Olympic ideal than the World’s oldest sport? It was not only one of five sports in the ancient Olympics, wrestling was considered chief among them. It was at the foundation of the modern Olympic movement.

The IOC reported through a spokesman that they want to look to the future. Wrestling does not have television appeal. It apparently is not “sexy” enough.

Sexy wears off; true love is not sexy. The IOC seems to want fads, not ideals. Ideals do not become obsolete. The future of the Olympics appears to be only about money, TV ratings and trendy things. I have already seen the future, and I do not like it.

It seems for me that the long slow divorce from sports may be complete. I will never watch another Olympics without wrestling. Unless there is reconciliation, the Olympics will go the way of hockey and other professional sports have gone for me. I hope that wrestling survives; but if wrestling does not survive, the divorce will be complete.

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