Well before the inaugural modern Olympic Games of 1896, wrestling was as much a part of Greece’s cultural heritage as hockey has been to Canadians. Many experts regard wrestling as the world’s oldest competitive sport, and indeed, wall paintings in Egypt depicting grapplers date back 5,000 years. But the original Greek Olympics put wrestling on the map in the ancient world, making its Olympic debut in the Games of 708 B.C. It was apparently a much more violent, punishing sport in those early days, when it had closer ties to military training. Wrestling died out with the Olympic Games in the Dark Ages, but it was natural that when organizers of the 1896 Olympics searched for sports with roots in antiquity, they looked to wrestling. It was the showpiece event of those Olympics, much as the 100-metre final is in the present day Games.
A less restrictive brand of wrestling made inroads in the Western world. Unlike Greco-Roman wrestlers, who tried to throw or otherwise force their opponents to the mat with holds around the upper body, freestyle wrestlers had more options. They could trip their opponents, grab their legs and use their own legs in holds and take downs. Fittingly, freestyle wrestling also became known as “catch as catch can” and proved to be popular entertainment in the 19th Century.
In the early years of the Olympics, Finland and Sweden dominated both disciplines. Since the Olympics resumed in 1948, Olympic wrestling’s heartland has moved south and east. Russia and the former Soviet Union have racked up a remarkable 298 medals in between freestyle and Greco-Roman, including nine (six gold) in the 2000 Sydney Games. Eastern European countries like Romania, Poland and Bulgaria and the former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan have become wrestling powers, along with Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Turkey.
Canada’s first Canadian wrestling championships took place in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1909. Prior to the Sydney Games, Canada was not considered a strong wrestling nation. Canada had never won a gold medal and only earned 10 other wrestling medals in Olympic history. All that changed in Sydney in 2000 with the inspiring performance of Daniel Igali. Igali, who stayed in Canada after competing for his native Nigeria at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C. and became a Canadian citizen four years later, took home gold after defeating Russia’s Arsen Gitinov 7-4 in the final of the 69kg. After the match, an elated Igali placed the Canadian flag on the mat and kissed it from his knees in a humble display of gratitude for his adopted homeland.
Since the Olympics resumed in 1948, Canada was in the midst of a 36-year drought, until super heavyweight Robert Molle and middleweight Chris Rink won silver and bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
On the women’s side, the World Championship has been held every year since 1987 beginning with minimal participation and building to where it is an Olympic discipline in 2004. Canada first sent women to the World Championships in 1993 where Christine Nordhagen of Alberta and Janna Penney of British Columbia won silver and bronze medals respectively. Since then, Nordhagen has gone on to become a six-time World Champion (at 67 kg and 72 kg) in addition to the winner of numerous World Cup and international events. In 2002, Tara Hedican, of Guelph became the World Junior Champion at 63 kg, adding another honour to Canada’s strong women’s program.
In 2004, four women’s weight classes were added to the Olympic Games, bringing the sport full circle to its roots in Greece. Japan was the dominant country in Athens, claiming four medals, including two gold medals. Tonya Verbeek of Ontario became the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal with her silver in the women’s 55 kg weight class. In 2008, it was Carol Huynh of BC (wrestling for Calgary) was the first Canadian Women to win Olympic Gold in Beijing, CHN.
As well to that record Tonya Verbeek also set a record in wrestling history for Canada being the only wrestler to win back to back-to-back medals at the Olympics (Athens – Silver; Beijing – Bronze; London - Silver) Notably, Carol Huynh won back-to-back medals at Olympic Games (Gold – Beijing; Bronze – London).