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Sean Bormet is calm for a man who’s just had his life’s work threatened.
Bormet, a freestyle wrestling coach for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and current assistant coach at the University of Michigan, spent much of the past two decades training grapplers to compete at the international level. Between the guys currently on U of M’s roster and non-scholastic athletes at the school’s regional training center, Bormet currently works with more than 10 wrestlers who he says have a legitimate shot at making an Olympic team. So Tuesday’s announcement that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to exclude Wrestling from the 2020 Games hit Bormet—and the athletes he trains—hard.
“My initial reaction was complete disbelief and shock,” Bormet said in a phone interview. His tone was measured and quiet, and he spoke in straightforward sentences delivered slowly. “Our college guys really have their sights set on 2020, since in our sport it’s common for guys to be physically competitive from age 19 to 32. So these guys would ordinarily have a shot at multiple Olympic cycles.”
Bormet says he received the news about the IOC’s decision just before his team’s 7:00 a.m. workout. After doing some research (“It doesn’t sound like USA Wrestling or the U.S. Olympic Committee expected this either,” Bormet says), he and the other Michigan coaches called the athletes currently training for international competitions in for a meeting.
“We wanted to get as much concrete information into their hands as possible,” Bormet says. “We let the athletes get their initial reaction of frustration out, and then we had practice. Business as usual.”
Wrestling has a long and storied Olympic history that dates back to the 1896 Games in Athens. The IOC’s decision this week doesn’t necessarily signal the end of Olympic Wrestling—two more votes will ultimately decide the sport’s fate—but a tough road lies ahead for grapplers and their fans. Bormet says the decision to remove wrestling makes no sense when he reflects on how the event was received at past games.
“In London the support for wrestling was tremendous,” Bormet says. “So many fans who traveled to see us weren’t able to get tickets over there because the events were sold out. At each match, the stands were full. Fan and athlete participation are as healthy as they have ever been.”
Wrestling now has to compete against other sports like baseball and softball, sport climbing and wushu for the last remaining spot in the 2020 Games. Bormet says that while wrestling is a healthy sport in the U.S., it may suffer if athletes no longer have the ability to compete at the Olympic level.
“Being an Olympic champion was an aspiration I had as a young boy,” says Bormet, who last attempted to reach the Olympics himself in 1996, when he placed third at the Team Trials. “I think that everyone in our sport grows up with that being their dream, to reach the highest level of our sport, the Olympics. “
When asked about specific consequences that may result from losing Olympic wrestling, Bormet says, “I haven’t even let my mind wander in that direction.” Instead, he’s viewing the IOC decision as “an opportunity to tell our story,” and encouraging the sport’s athletes and fans to get involved however they can, including a “Keep Wrestling in the Olympics” Facebook page.
“Wrestling is a resilient sport. It has a resilient culture,” Bormet says. “We aren’t out of it yet, so we need to rise up and show the world that our sport is worthy of being an Olympic event. This is a big challenge and we have to step up to meet it.”