Bye is a realtor in Vermillion. In the winter, he serves as head wrestling coach at Vermillion High School. His Tanagers brought two place winners home from the Class A State Tournament last weekend. Bye’s nephew, Brett Bye, finished third at 152 pounds—while Regan Bye, the coach’s son, won the state championship at 145 pounds.
Amateur wrestling is different from the versions in the Olympics. In the US, high school and college participants wrestle in what’s called “folkstyle.” Rules and scoring are different than the Olympic tournament rules, known as “Freestyle” and “Greco-Roman.” Coach Bye says it’s easy for the casual fan to lose their way during the Olympics.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t keep up with the rule changes, it’s tough for the fan to know what’s going on" Bye says. "I go with my boy and do it all summer long. It’s taken a while, but once you learn how the scoring goes, it’s so much different.”
Bye, himself a state champion at Vermillion, doesn’t like to see any form of wrestling disappear. And around the world, that seems to be the consensus with wrestling fans. Sioux Falls Argus Leader sports columnist Stu Whitney was out of the state when he found out the IOC was ending wrestling competition in the Olympics.
“Well, I was on vacation in Arizona when I first heard of it—and you know, these days it doesn’t take long for stuff like that to travel," Whitney says. "I knew it would have a huge impact on South Dakota and the Upper Midwest, being the huge wrestling hotbed that this is.”
Unlike other sports, wrestling has very few career opportunities after college. What’s known as “professional wrestling” is nothing like the sport high school and collegiate wrestlers partake in. Unless one makes a career of coaching—or, like me, stays close to wrestling as an official, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of the sport.
“And to take away what is probably the biggest carrot a kid has—you know, you dream of wrestling in the Olympics," Whitney says. " If you play football or basketball, you kinda dream of being Michael Jordon or Peyton Manning. If you’re a wrestler, you think of Lincoln McIlravy or one of the other greats wearing a medal around their neck. To really kind of wound the sport in that manner—I knew it was going to have severe repercussions in South Dakota.”
The name Whitney just mentioned, Lincoln McIlravy, is well-known among wrestling fans. He won five state titles at Philip High School, moved to the elite program and won three national championships at the University of Iowa, and won a Bronze Medal in the 2000 Olympics in Freestyle wrestling. Whitney says successful competitors like McIlravy make the IOC’s decision that much more puzzling.
“It is kind of an essential Olympic sport. You look at the tradition, it goes back about 15 thousand years, and as you mentioned—it was in the first modern Olympiad in 18-96," Whitney says. "It just seems to embody a lot of the Olympic values—commitment, and sacrifice and hard work that comes from getting a body ready to wrestle. It just seems in so many ways like the Olympics.”
Vermillion High School coach Hazen Bye says eliminating freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from the Olympics could, in a sense, reduce participation in the activity in future years.
"I think what'll happen is it'll probably kill freestyle and greco in the United States, because there's no purpose of doing it anymore," Bye says. "I think folkstyle will be more specialized and that'll probably help us in the United States--but it'll probably kill freestyle and greco, because that's what the Olympics are all about. And if there's no end goal, there's no incentive to do it anymore."
There’s a slight chance the IOC could reverse itself in the wake of public pressure from its original decision. The Committee has room for one more sport in the 2020 games. It’s probably not a great chance, but Stu Whitney with the Argus Leader says world reaction may tip the scales this once.
“We should point out it’s not just in this country. Iran has a great wrestling tradition; their federation is up in arms," Whitney says. "In Russia—there’s a lot of repercussions. Now if they can get enough online petitions and get enough people speaking on their behalf, maybe they can reverse a trend and right a wrong here.”
Olympic wrestling is safe for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—leaving one more Olympiad, and seven years, to show the sport belongs on the world stage.