Wrestling itself has been around for about 15,000 years, but the modern history of Olympic Wrestling did not begin until 1904 at the Olympic Games in Saint Louis, Missouri. Freestyle was implemented in 1904 and in 1908 Greco-Roman wrestling was reinstated as an Olympic Sport. For a clear picture of how Olympic wrestling has evolved, let’s go back to the beginning.
The first sign that wrestling existed back in the cave days were drawings found on the walls of the caves in France. Wrestling holds that still are used today were found later in Babylonia and Egypt.
Wrestling was the number one sport of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. References to it can be found through writings and legends, but it was very brutal. The first recorded match was in 708 B.C. There were two types of wrestling, upright and ground. While the ancient Romans copied much of the Greek wrestling, they eliminated most of the brutality.
In the Middle Ages wrestling was popular among royal families from France, England and Japan. When the early Americans came from England they brought the wrestling tradition with them. It was a popular sport at fairs, entertainment during holidays, and was used for military exercise. The Native Americans also loved wrestling.
The first National Wrestling Tournament was held in 1888 in New York City. In 1896, at the first modern games in Athens, there was one featured wrestling match. At that time there was no weight limit and it was won by a short, stout German triple gold medal winner in gymnastics. At the first modern Olympics held in the U.S. in 1904 there were no international participants and all medals were won by Americans. In 1908 in London, Canada and the U.S. competed.
The first NCAA Wrestling Championships were held in 1912 in Ames, Iowa. The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) was also founded in 1912. At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm no time limits had been imposed and one match between Klein and Asikainen lasted eleven hours outdoors in the hot sun with a short break every 30 minutes. Time limits were finally imposed in 1924.
In Los Angeles in 1932, a Swedish policeman took the freestyle gold medal, then fasted and went to the sauna, to shed ten pounds, and went back to win the Greco-Roman medal. In Berlin in 1936, Estonia’s Palusalu also won medals in both styles. These are the only two wrestlers that have ever won the single-games double. In 1952 in Helsinki, a 37 year old Estonian pinned all four of his opponents in thirteen minutes and 34 seconds.
Throughout the years more countries joined the Olympics and wrestling competitions got more and more exciting. In 1972 Dan Gable from the U.S. won the freestyle gold which began his ten-year run in which he won 299 matches, losing only six. He later coached at the University of Iowa and took them to championship fifteen times. He also coached the 1984 and 2000 U.S. Olympic teams. In 1983 USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, became the national governing body for amateur wrestling. They conduct competitions for all age levels. In 1988 in Seoul, Kenny Monday became the first black gold medalist in wrestling. In Sydney in 2000, Russian Karelin, who was considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, and undefeated in thirteen years, was defeated by America’s Gardner for one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. In 2004 in Athens, women’s freestyle wrestling with four weight classes made its debut.