SANFORD – Back and forth, back and forth.
Like a caged lion, Andrew Pineo paced the end line of Memorial Gym. A senior wrestler from Skowhegan High, he started pacing about 30 minutes before his 195-pound semifinal match against Cony’s Nic Benner, a match Pineo would win 8-0.
His concentration, his determination, were evident from the moment he slipped out of his sweats.
“This is my passion,” he said of wrestling. “This is what I love.”
And he feels like he’s been slammed to the mat.
The 15-member executive board of the International Olympic Committee recommended in a secret ballot last Tuesday that wrestling be dropped from the Olympics beginning in 2020. It has not released the vote nor the reasons for the decision.
While the final decision won’t be made until September, it is unlikely to change. And that, said Pineo and just about everyone else at the packed Class A wrestling championships here Saturday, is a mistake.
“I would tell them that they’ve taken away something big from little kids,” said Pineo when asked what he would tell the IOC. “They’ve taken away a passion, something that someone has worked for their entire life, and that’s not right.”
DATING BACK TO ANCIENT GREECE
Wrestling, to many in Maine, is synonymous with the Olympic Games. It dates back to the ancient Greeks, and was one of the sports in the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896.
Last summer, 344 athletes from 28 nations competed in wrestling in the London Olympics.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said Al Kirk, head wrestling coach at Deering High in Portland for 35 years. “It is not a politically sound move for them to do this. It’s the oldest sport, dating back to the Romans and Greeks. Almost all the countries around the world have it.”
Few believe the decision will affect high school wrestling, which, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, is the sixth-most popular high school sport among boys (272,149 participants). More than 8,200 girls now compete across the nation.
In the U.S., high school and college wrestlers compete in a style known as folkstyle, which is different from the freestyle and Greco-Roman styles used in the Olympics. There is more of an emphasis on wrestling on your feet in freestyle and Greco-Roman, and the scoring for takedowns is a bit different.
But the techniques for takedowns are easily transferable from folkstyle to the others.
The biggest impact will be on the exposure young wrestlers get to the sport. Olympic wrestling provided the ultimate competition for its participants. It is the only time the sport receives any television exposure.
Tyler Davidson of Marshwood won the state title at 120 pounds Saturday, to become only the 16th wrestler to win four Maine state titles. He will attend the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., next year. His wrestling ability had a big hand in getting him in.
People who love wrestling will continue to wrestle, he said. Others may have second thoughts.
“I think this is going to impact people’s views on wrestling,” he said. “If it’s an Olympic sport then it’s a legitimate sport. Where they’re taking it out, I think it undermines wrestling.
“It’s just crazy, some of the sports they’re keeping.”
Iain Whitis, a senior at Chev- erus, became the school’s first wrestling state champion, at 120 pounds, last year.
“I love everything about wrestling,” he said after his 126-pound semifinal victory Saturday. “Wrestling is unbiased. As long as you’re an athlete and you work hard and you practice hard, you’re going to be good.”
He was shocked at the decision. “Olympics and wrestling are engraved in my mind,” he said. “I think it impacts the sport at every level in every country. It draws from all over the world.”
‘WHAT SPORT IS MORE OLYMPIC?’
Matt Rix, the coach at Marshwood, says the sport will survive, but that the decision will leave young men and women without a goal. He also runs a summer camp that specializes in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
“One of the things that we’ve always promoted,” he said, “was if you want to put the time in, wrestling will take you as far as you want to go. If the Olympics are your goal, we have avenues to push you in the right direction to get you there.”
Rix’ daughter, Deanna Betterman, said the IOC picked the wrong sport to eliminate.
“They’re in for a fight,” she said in a phone interview from Colorado Springs. “I think everyone’s going to come together and make plans to fight this.
“A lot of those European countries, wrestling is like our football and basketball. It’s a national sport.”
The 25-year-old Betterman, who made headlines when she competed against boys as Deanna Rix at Marshwood and nearly won a state title, said wrestling gave her something to reach for.
“(Female wrestling) was added to the Olympics in 2004,” she said. “It became my goal. If they hadn’t added it, I probably wouldn’t have wrestled after high school.”
Now she fears a new generation of wrestlers will have nothing to dream for. “There will be no Olympic dream,” she said.
Terry Devereaux, the Maine director of USA Wrestling, added, “An Olympic gold medal still is the ultimate goal for a lot of wrestlers who compete at the collegiate level. While they could still compete in the world championships, nothing has the prestige of an Olympic gold medal.”
Betterman, who is now coaching a middle school wrestling team, could not compete in the London Games because she was pregnant. She and Joe Betterman, who finished second in the 2012 60-kilogram Olympic Trials, now have a 5-month old son, Mason.
She hopes to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as does her husband, who is in the Army. He was also looking forward to competing in 2020, then retiring to become a coach for the Army.
“It really is heartbreaking,” she said of the decision. “You work your whole life for something, then to drop it, it’s devastating. Joe and I had talked about Mason some day competing in the Olympics. Now?”
And that’s why they hope that the decision will be reversed.
“What sport is more Olympic?” asked Tony Napolitano, the coach at Portland. “It’s just a real shame.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: