When the IOC, following an executive board meeting Tuesday in Switzerland, made its shocking announcement, undoubtedly it was thinking of wrestling as a nameless, faceless — and, more to the point, decidedly unsexy — sport, the removal of which from the Summer Games in the interests of modernity would do little harm outside of its small, insular, cauliflower-eared circle of proponents.
But here, then, is the human face behind the abstraction, the symbolic victim of what those board members voted to do: Kyle Snyder is 17 years old, a junior at Good Counsel High School in Olney, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound marble slab of an athlete — undefeated in his high school career, and the top-ranked prep wrestler in the country at his weight class. For as long as he has wrestled competitively, one goal above all others has driven him: Olympic gold.
“It was kind of shocking to me,” he said, “that something I’ve dreamed about my entire life could just be taken away by a group of people for . . . for I’m not really sure the reason.”
He said this on Thursday, sitting in the bleachers at Good Counsel’s auxiliary gymnasium following the last practice before this weekend’s state championship meet. He had just spent much of the previous half-hour tossing, pinning and generally emasculating a 240-pound assistant coach named Dan Sirotkin, who wrestled at Harvard and who represents the closest thing around the Good Counsel team to a true challenge for Snyder.
“I’ve never had a high school kid take me down until him last year, and now I can’t come close to beating him,” Sirotkin said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of wrestler.”
Snyder has been wrestling in one form or another since he was 4, and has been serious about it since sixth grade, when he tagged along with older brother Stephen (who now wrestles collegiately at the U.S. Military Academy) to a Good Counsel practice. He has more or less dedicated his life to wrestling, dropping other sports one by one until only football remained. And then last fall, he dropped that as well.
“I just grew an overwhelmingly powerful love of wrestling, and it was all I could think about,” Snyder said. “I didn’t want to be out on the football field. I wanted to be getting better at wrestling. I think I have an addictive personality, and when I fall in love with something I keep thinking about it and thinking about it.”
“Wrestling is his calling,” said Snyder’s coach at Good Counsel, Skylar Saar. “He probably spends 80 to 90 percent of every waking hour thinking about wrestling.”
The entire wrestling community was sucker-punched by the news out of Switzerland on Tuesday, having had no inkling that the future of its sport was even on the IOC’s docket. Evidently, the people who run wrestling — its international federation is known as FILA — were confident that its status as an original Olympic sport (part of the Games since their modern revival in 1896) and its international reach (with 29 countries represented on the medal stand at the 2012 London Games) would cement its status as one of the 25 “core” Olympic sports and thus keep it immune from the threat of banishment.
And there is still one last shot for wrestling to keep its Olympic status: It must compete against seven other sports (including ones called sport climbing, roller sports, wakeboarding and wushu) for one remaining, non-core spot. FILA, in a statement, vowed to “take all necessary measures to convince the IOC . . . of the aberration of [its] decision against one of the founding sports of the ancient and modern Olympic games.”
On the message boards of wrestling Web sites and at meets across the United States, the IOC’s gut-punch is all anyone talks about. “Wrestling is the ultimate test of a man’s strength, courage, discipline — everything,” said Phil Brown, a former all-ACC wrestler at the University of Maryland, now an assistant coach at Good Counsel. “You take out a sport that has been there since the very beginning, and add something like wakeboarding? That belongs in the X Games.”
Still, few are as personally affected by the IOC’s decision as Snyder, for whom the Olympics had been both a lifelong dream and, increasingly, a tangible and realistic goal. Of course, he can still qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games — and he was focused on that even before the IOC’s decision ratcheted up his urgency — but it is rare that a 20-year-old, as Snyder will be at the time, makes it onto the U.S. squad in wrestling.
According to Saar, a wrestler’s prime competitive years are the mid- to late-20s. Simple math tells you that Snyder will be 24 in the summer of 2020, 28 in the summer of 2024.
“If this stands, he’ll get cheated out of his prime Olympic years,” Saar said. “He’ll still be able to compete in the world championships every year, and he’ll still compete for NCAA championships — and those are meaningful goals that he talks about. But it’s different than saying you’re an Olympic champion.”
Holding out hope
An Olympic gold medal being the absolute best thing one can get out of a wrestling career — riches and fame being out of the question — no one, after Tuesday’s news, would have begrudged Snyder had he hung up his singlet and directed his obvious athletic gifts toward a pursuit with a more tangible payoff. Instead, he vowed to stay the course, saying nothing had changed in the way he would approach his future.
“If anything,” Snyder’s father, Steve, said, “this really fires him up.”
For one thing, Snyder still has 2016 to shoot for, and he considers that his primary immediate goal. Though he has another year left at Good Counsel, he has already committed to attend Ohio State in the fall of 2014 — in part because it is home to a Regional Training Center dedicated to fostering Olympic-caliber wrestlers.
But beyond that, Snyder still hasn’t given up hopes for 2020 and beyond. Perhaps the IOC will come to its senses.
“I believe with all my heart [that] the people who love wrestling across the world are going to do what they can to bring it back in 2020,” he said. “There are too many countries where it’s popular, too many who compete in it for it to just vanish.”
On Tuesday, once he had let the news sink in, Snyder went straight to the Internet in search of answers to the pressing questions: Who had done this? And why? He went to the very core of the matter, looking up the definition of “Olympics.”
“The definition was, ‘The modern revival every four years of ancient games,’ ” Snyder said. “If that’s what the Olympics is, wrestling has to be part of it. It’s the oldest sport. It has been dated to 806 B.C. It has been in the Olympic Games since 1896. It’s one man against one man, or woman, to see who’s better. It’s what the Olympic ideal is all about.”
Someone ought to ship Kyle Snyder to Switzerland as Exhibit A for why wrestling ought to keep its spot in the Olympics. At the very least, if any IOC board member, after hearing his case, still felt wrestling is not worthy, they would be wise not to say it to his face.