The sport of wrestling has come a long way since it was practiced by our earliest ancestors, becoming a more formal and organized representation of the world's oldest form of competition. These days, traditional and modern forms of wrestling are practiced on every continent and in almost every country. The 2004 Olympics reinforced wrestling's popularity, yielding 344 competitors in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman divisions - a record number of competitors for the Olympic wrestling tournament.
Born to Wrestle
Wrestling has roots in nearly every culture and had a solid foundation in ancient Greece long before the first recorded Olympic Games in 776 B.C. Greek wrestling was an extremely popular form of competition. However, it had considerably undeveloped rules and was a much different style of wrestling than what is practiced on mats around the world today.
When in Greece…
Greek wrestling, also known as "Pale," stood alone as the most popular sporting event in ancient Greece. Most similar to what we know as Greco-Roman wrestling, the Greek style allowed two competitors to grapple until a certain number of points were scored or one of the competitors conceded defeat due to pain or fear. Scoring occurred when one competitor was thrown to his back, pushed out of the wrestling area, or forced to submit to a hold. Three points had to be scored to win a specific bout.
Greeks respected wrestling as a sport, but also revered it for its mental and spiritual benefits. It was required for Greek soldiers to be educated in the art of wrestling, as well as academic disciplines like mathematics and language arts. Greek wrestling was also a popular event during the summer Olympics, and has since evolved into a familiar form practiced all over the world.
Greco-Roman Breaks Through
Although Greco-Roman is an evolved form of Greek wrestling, its rules were established in the 19th century by a French soldier named Exbroyat. This style would be known in Europe as "flat-hand wrestling" or "French wrestling," to differentiate it from other styles practiced during a time when striking and dangerous holds were permitted.
In 1848, Exbroyat created a major rule that forbade holds below the waist. He also barred certain techniques and holds that intentionally hurt or injured an opponent. French wrestling quickly became the definition of sport in Europe during the 19th century. It was during this time that Italian wrestler Basilio Bartoli coined the name "Greco-Roman," connecting the modern style to the sport's ancient values.
Greco-Roman was the first style of wrestling added to the Olympic Games, making its debut in 1896, more than 1,500 years after Greek wrestling was established at the Olympic level. The Greco-Roman style was both the focus and main event of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and was so popular that it paved the way for emerging styles in the 20th century.
The nations of Iran, Turkey, and Armenia currently produce some of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers in the world.
Catch Wrestling Grabs Attention
Shortly after the establishment of the tradition-rooted style of Greco-Roman, another fast-paced and exciting style was emerging in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Known as "catch as catch can" or "catch wrestling," this style had become a popular form of entertainment at various events in the 18th and 19th centuries, including large fairs and carnivals. Because the style was in the infant stage of development, rules would vary from event to event and region to region.
The excitement of this style caught on quickly, mostly because of the lack of limitations in rules. Attacks below the waist were legal, providing for a different experience from the increasingly popular style of Greco-Roman. Catch wrestling would prove to be a major influence on the rules of the emerging styles of freestyle and folkstyle.
Freestyle to Follow
Less than a decade after the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, a second style of wrestling was added to the 1904 games in St. Louis, Missouri. This new style would be called "freestyle," an evolution of the popular catch-wrestling style that allowed wrestlers to incorporate pushing, lifting, tripping and other techniques using the lower body. Since the establishment of freestyle, both of the international styles have gained popularity and respect throughout the world - so much so that a universal governing body needed to be put in place to accommodate the growing needs of the wrestling community.
Nations such as Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran currently yield some of the most successful freestyle wrestlers.
As Greco-Roman and freestyle were making an impact on the international scene, folkstyle wrestling was growing rapidly in America. Early folkstyle rules were a combination of catch wrestling rules brought over by early American settlers and the freestyle rules of the time. By the late 1800s, folkstyle had evolved into a popular sport practiced at local athletic clubs, along with boxing and gymnastics. Many college wrestling teams sprung up at the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1928 the first NCAA national championship was won by Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University). Since then folkstyle wrestling teams have been established at thousands of universities, high schools, and even at elementary schools. Top level wrestlers in America typically compete in folkstyle during their prep (high school, college) careers, but eventually move on to grapple with the world's best in freestyle and Greco.
FILA Unites the World
By the turn of the 20th century, wrestling had evolved from being an ancient art with various rules and styles, to becoming a major form of organized competition, recreation, and entertainment throughout the world. In 1905, the first international federation for wrestling was created to unify and organize the different styles of the sport, especially the rapidly growing international styles of freestyle and Greco-Roman. This organization would take on many names, but in 1994, the world's governing body for wrestling would be given the name as we know it today - FILA (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles).
FILA set many goals in order to expand the sport. These goals included the establishment of a unified world championship, the creation of regional training centers to build the current level of competition, and the communication and networking between all wrestling nations. Since the creation of this world committee, other non-Olympic styles have been affiliated with FILA, including traditional forms of wrestling such as belt wrestling and pankration. FILA has also backed emerging styles like beach wrestling, which was established in 2004. What followed was a historic landmark for all wrestlers, as another division based on gender was sanctioned as an Olympic event.
The Rise of Women's Freestyle
Although women have participated in the sport of wrestling for many years, organized women's divisions did not become present until the 1980s in European competition. The rules in the women's divisions took on many forms and changed frequently at first. Over time, however, the same rules as male freestyle divisions were applied with very minor alterations. In 1984, FILA included women's freestyle wrestling in its association. Just a few years later, the first women's world championships were held in Lorenskog, Norway.
Women's wrestling has snowballed into a major force on the world level, fielding tough all-female teams from numerous countries. Some of the best female wrestlers come from Azerbaijan, Japan, Canada, Ukraine, Russia and the United States. The establishment of the women's freestyle division at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens refreshingly confirmed modern society's view of equality, and with it the definition of what an athlete truly is.
Wrestling With Tomorrow
As the world's wrestling community grows, the rules, techniques, and athletes continue to grow with it. As the sport changes rapidly to accommodate assets and obstacles alike, one must truly be a student of the sport to stay "in the know" with its constant changes. Internet and television coverage has allowed the sport to reach more individuals than ever before, continuing to bring the unique and pure competitive elements of wrestling to spectators and athletes around the world.