The Olympics sure have grown up since Jim Thorpe forfeited a medal for having played bush league baseball for pay. By now, the amateur façade has, as Ric "Nature Boy" Flair would say, been dropped like third-period French. The United States has generally taken advantage of the move toward an all-pro Olympics. When the just-for-the-love-of-the-sport boys stopped bringing home gold in, for example, hockey and basketball, America called in the professionals.
It's about time we did the same in wrestling.
Why not? Nobody save the Iron Sheik would deny that we have the best wrestlers in the world. Yet in Athens, for still another Olympiad, America's professionals were kept off the mat while our amateurs foundered. Domestic wrestling fans pinned their medal hopes on Rulon Gardner, the beloved hayseed champ of Greco-Roman grappling. Gardner decisioned Iran's Sajad Barzi to win a bronze. A bronze medal? Only an amateur would be satisfied with that finish—there's no third-place belt in pro wrestling.
A move to the pros would benefit more than just a singleted few. The networks' hunger for spiced-up programming has already given us synchronized, beach, and rhythmic versions of every Olympic sport. Think of the content benefits our pro wrestlers could add to programming! Poor NBC had to cook up a heartwarming story out of nothing more than Gardner's missing toe. With the pro wrestlers around, you'd never hear a storyline that lame again. In his autobiography To Be the Man, Flair claims that the WCW's writing staff once cooked up a hunchback character whose physical deformity was so pronounced he couldn't be pinned, thereby guaranteeing a run at the championship. Talk about inspirational!
As we've seen in Athens, nothing spikes interest like a good controversy. No one paid attention to the pipsqueaky male gymnasts before wee Paul Hamm grabbed a South Korean's medal after a fouled-up scoring decision, then turned heel and refused to give it back. Such scoring dilemmas would be the rule once the pros came to Olympic wrestling. Forget amateur moves like escapes and takedowns. How many points would a ref award the piledrivers and sleeper holds our wrestlers will slap on the competition? How would they score the Rock's pet headbanger, "The People's Elbow"? And what would Kurt Angle, one of many U.S. Olympians to graduate to the professional ranks (sadly, nobody's yet made the reverse voyage), earn when he finishes off an opponent with the reverse body slam he's dubbed "The Olympic?"
Nationalism has fueled great Olympic rivalries in other sports—"Do you believe in miracles?" and so forth. On paper, Gardner vs. Barzi was a xenophobe's wet dream: America vs. the Axis of Evil! Yet, in the hands of amateurs, the match had none of the international intrigue of Hulk Hogan vs. Iron Sheik, the 1984 bout that gave Hogan his first WWF championship. "USA! USA!" Now, that was wrestling.
Once we start doing the right thing and sending our professional wrestlers to the Olympics, the world will follow suit. There's just one pesky question that Games organizers will have to work out: What's the national anthem of Parts Unknown?