The Oldest Sport

By Bob Dellinger, Director Emeritus
National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Note: This work draws its title from a series of columns by wrestling historian Donald A. Sayenga. Much of this information was obtained from The Magnificent Scufflers by Charles Morrow Wilson © 1959, and from A Pictorial History of Wrestling by Graeme Kent © 1968.

Wrestling, mankind's oldest and most basic form of recreational combat, traces its origins back to the dawn of civilization. Carvings and drawings estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 years old, found in caves in southern Europe, illustrate wrestlers in hold and leverage positions. Sumerians cast wrestlers in bold relief on stone slabs at least 5,000 years ago, antedating all other artifacts of ancient sport. A small bronze statuette of wrestlers, apparently used as a vase, was unearthed in the ruins of Khafaji, 200 miles from Baghdad. This artifact, dated 2600 B.C., now is housed in the Iraqi national museum.

Wrestling also reached a high stage of development in Egypt, where paintings of wrestlers dating to approximately 2500 B.C. have been found in lavish tombs of kings and other high officials. No archaeological excavation or historical document has depicted wrestling so completely and so technically correct as have drawings in the temple-tombs of Beni Hasan in middle kingdom Egypt. Hundreds of drawings there demonstrate clearly that most contemporary wrestling holds were performed in ancient Egypt. In fact, the maneuvers depicted are more closely related to the present-day sport than are those of such modern variants as sumo, kokh, glima, et al.

Wrestling matches were described by the Greek poet Homer, and wrestling became the final and decisive event of the pentathlon, the five-fold contest of the Greek public games. The poet Pindar describes how the gods Zeus and Cronus wrestled for possession of the universe along the river Alpheus at Olympia. Zeus was victorious, and Olympic festivals dating from the Eighth Century B.C. commemorated his triumph.

Wrestling was the most popular event in the ancient Greek Games, and lists of Olympic wrestling winners have been recorded since 708 B.C. One of the most famous of the Greek wrestlers was the philosopher, Plato, who won many prizes for wrestling as a young man. His real name was Aristocles, but because of his success, he was given the name Plato, meaning ''broad shoulders.''

The greatest popularity of the Olympic Games was during the period of the ''five good emperors'' in Rome, around 125 A.D. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, the contests spread across Europe. It was in this era that the ''catch-as-catch-can'' style -- forerunner of modern freestyle -- developed. The style was completely free, with no holds barred on any part of the person or garments of the opponent.

During the Napoleonic period, the French developed a style which today is identified as Greco-Roman. No hold on or with the legs is permitted, nor is tripping allowed.

Wrestling also has been popular in the Orient for at least 20 centuries. Syndicated feature columnist L. M. Boyd has stated that the Kingdom of Japan was wagered on the outcome of a wrestling match in 858 A.D. Two distinctive styles emerged in Japan, sumo and judo, and both remain immensely popular today.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, wrestling was considered a knightly skill. In 1520, at the Field of Cloth-of-Gold, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France were provoked by strong feelings while watching their countrymen compete. Henry challenged Francis and reportedly was thrown by him.

In both North and South America, Indians included wrestling in their sport activities long before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and seven other presidents of the United States were acknowledged as skilled wrestlers.

Wrestling clearly has no single point of origin. More than 160 traditional or ''folk-lore'' variants are recognized by the International Amateur Wrestling Federation. In the Soviet Union, for example, it was a practice to organize spectacular championships and exhibitions of folk-lore wrestling, such as ''tchidaoba'' from Georgia, ''kokh'' from Armenia, ''gulech'' from Azerbaidjan, ''kurach'' from Uzbekistan, ''kurek'' from Kazakhstan, et al.

Great Britain developed styles referred to by the parts of the country in which they originated: Cumberland, Westmoreland, Cornwall and Lancashire. In the Cumberland style, if the starting hold is lost, or if any part of the body except the feet touches the ground, the contestant loses. The Cornwall-and-Devon style starts from the upright position and ground wrestling is prohibited.

In Switzerland, a popular style is ''schwingen'' where special pants are used, with a strong belt that is gripped at the start of the contest. A style called ''glima'' is popular in Iceland, and the wrestlers there are equipped with belts for grasping. Japanese sumo, perhaps the best known and most stylized of all the folk-lore styles of wrestling, determines a winner when the opponent is thrown to the ground or forced outside the boundaries of the mat. There are no weight classes in sumo, and the contestants often attain 350 to 450 pounds.

Modern wrestling is a highly instinctive sport that requires strength, alertness, resiliency and, above all, agility and quickness. Olympic and World championships are conducted in two separate styles, freestyle and Greco-Roman. International competition is governed by the FŽdŽration Internationale des Luttes AssociŽs (FILA). The eight weight classes for men range from 54 kilograms (119.05 pounds) to 125 kg (275.58 lbs). Freestyle competition also is conducted for women.

USA Wrestling (originally the U. S. Wrestling Federation) is the national governing body and international delegate for the sport in this country. As part of its responsibilities for education and for promotion of the sport, USA Wrestling conducts national championships each year in folkstyle, freestyle, Greco-Roman and women's wrestling, presents an extensive series of clinics on coaching, officiating and sport medicine, and produces a large number of books, films and video tapes.

As many as 70 regional and national tournaments are conducted annually for various age groups starting at age 9. Such competition usually is wrestled under international rules, subject to modifications adopted for the health and safety of young wrestlers. Some of these events determine the lineup of United States teams competing against national teams of other countries.

Today's wrestling mat is 4 to 6 cm (approximately 2 inches) thick and made of a foam core plastic with a smooth, bonded cover that is easy to clean with disinfectant. The center wrestling area is 7 meters in diameter and is surrounded by a 1-meter wide band called the ''passivity zone.''

Effective with the 1989 season, each bout now consists of a single 5-minute competition, with no rest period. The bout starts with the wrestlers on their feet, facing each other 1 meter apart. If the wrestlers step into the ''passivity zone'' with no action in progress, they are returned to the center for a fresh start. Each bout is directed by three officials -- a referee, judge and mat chairman. At least two officials must agree on any decision.

The 5-minute bout can be cut short by a fall, by one wrestler opening a lead of 10 or more points over his opponent, or by disqualification for illegal holds or for misconduct. A fall occurs when a wrestler's shoulders are pinned to the mat for one-half second.

The winner of a bout which lasts the full 5 minutes is determined by points awarded for successful execution of specific maneuvers -- such as takedowns (bringing the opponent to the mat from a standing position), reversals, near falls (turning the opponent's shoulders toward the mat at an angle of less than 90 degrees), and a variety of throws to the mat.

To be credited with a victory, a wrestler must have scored at least 3 points by the end of the regulation period. If he has not, or if the score is tied at any number, the bout goes into a 3-minute overtime period. If either wrestler earns a victory after the start of the overtime, the bout ends immediately. If neither has qualified by the end of the extra 3 minutes, the officials choose the winner.

Once a wrestler has taken his opponent to the mat, he is given the opportunity to continue in ''par terre'' position (on the ground) and to attempt to turn his opponent's shoulders into a ''danger'' position -- past 90 degrees. If it becomes evident to the officials that he will not succeed quickly, the wrestlers are returned to the standing position. No points are scored merely for controlling the opponent.

The rules strictly forbid tactics intended to injure the opponent, such as hair-pulling, scratching, grabbing the throat, twisting the fingers or any joints, or driving an elbow or knee into the opponent's back or abdomen.

In recent years, largely through the efforts of Milan Ercegan of Yugoslavia, president of FILA, the concept of ''total wrestling'' has become the guideline for international competition. The bout has been shortened, but constant aggressive activity is required, or the passive wrestler is penalized. The element of ''risk'' is the keynote of the new philosophy -- the wrestler must take risks to score, particularly if his opponent is ahead on points.

Of the two styles of international wrestling, freestyle is by far the more popular in the United States, because it more closely resembles the folkstyle practiced in our scholastic and collegiate programs.

Another international style, sombo, has not yet been accepted as an Olympic sport, although world championships have been conducted for several years. Sombo derives its name from a Russian acronym standing for ''self defense without weapons.'' A blend of wrestling and judo, it draws rules and participants from both. Sombo, like judo, now is recognized as an entirely separate sport rather than as a form of wrestling.

In freestyle, a wrestler may attack his opponent's legs, as with single-leg and double-leg tackles, or he may apply other holds below the waist, such as the fireman's carry or the crotch lift. He also may use his own legs to attack, as with trips and some types of scissors holds. The legs also may be used by the defensive wrestler to counter-attack or to block certain lifts. Such use of the legs also is an integral part of American folkstyle wrestling. The Greco-Roman style, on the contrary, forbids all use of the legs in attack or defense.

Points are scored for takedowns (1 point), reversals (1), and near falls (2). A near fall, or tilt, is scored by turning an opponent's back to the mat at an angle of less than 90 degrees, or by touching both his shoulders to the mat for an instant. (If both shoulders are held to the mat for one-half second, it is a fall and the bout is over.) If, from a standing position, a wrestler throws his opponent directly into a near fall, the action is worth 3 points. If such a maneuver is performed with a spectacular, high-arching throw, it is awarded 5 points. Holding the opponent in a danger position for a five-second count earns an additional point.

Except for the ban on use of the legs by either wrestler, the rules for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are identical. But that limitation brings great differences in philosophy and style. Much of the scoring results from spectacular, arching throws since a defensive wrestler being lifted may resist only by shifting his weight and balance, rather than by blocking with his legs or by grasping his opponent's legs.

The rules for collegiate and scholastic wrestling in the United States vary sharply from those of international freestyle, placing emphasis on control of the opponent rather than on physical dominance. A fall must be held for one second (collegiate) or two seconds (scholastic). Requirements for near fall points are much more demanding. Points are awarded for takedowns and reversals, but rather than award bonus points for spectacular throws, they are prohibited. Escaping from an opponent is a scoring maneuver, and merely controlling him can earn a point for time advantage. As in international wrestling, the folkstyle rules strictly forbid brutality and emphasize the physical safety of the wrestlers.

The evolution of the sport of wrestling is a continuing process. Over the years, the development of "folkstyle" rules in the United States and freestyle rules around the world followed distinctly separate tracks, converging only occasionally when proponents of one style discovered something worthwhile in the rules of the other.

Neither style of wrestling had a scoring system through the first four decades of the Twentieth Century. Art Griffith, the second great collegiate coach at Oklahoma State, developed a points system that finally gained acceptance in 1941. A year later, collegiate wrestling moved out of its raised, roped (boxing) ring and onto open mats laid flat on the floor of a gymnasium. These were the two most significant rules changes of the century, although a host of minor revisions would follow.

For nearly two more decades, until the 1960 Olympic Games, international wrestling was scored in secret by three judges, who signaled their decisions by raising colored paddles at the end of the bout. Dr. Albert de Ferrari, a San Francisco dentist who rose to the rank of vice president of the international federation, led the fight for a visible scoring system. He also campaigned successfully for the "controlled fall" rule, which recognized a pin only when the offensive wrestler had done something to cause it. As with American folkstyle, the international rules-makers also seem infected by a desire to tinker with the rules, often guided by what would provide the greatest advantage for their own countries.

Obviously, however, American methods of training and conditioning, and the development of new techniques, influenced the European power brokers of international wrestling. Such influence was a two-way street, as success in the international styles led to changes in the Americans' approach to wrestling. But with all the changes, it only takes a glance at drawings from the tombs of Beni-Hasan more than 4,000 years ago to underscore the adage: "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

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