UNIVERSITY PARK — Jaime Espinal accomplished something few athletes from his country have ever done last summer.
The Dominican wrestler, who trains with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, found himself standing on the medal podium after winning freestyle wrestling silver at 84 kilograms for Puerto Rico at last summer’s Olympic Games in London. Now, Espinal, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is worried he and the rest of his countrymen might not get another shot after 2016 as the International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling as soon as the 2020 games.
“Maybe for our country (it) should be something very important, but I think people should just get focused on adding more sports instead of switching them or trying to drop some sports,” Espinal said. “Because when you talk about the Olympics, you think about all the sports.”
But Puerto Rico sent just 25 athletes into action in only eight sports. Similarly, other smaller nations have historically sent a low volume of athletes to the games in a few sports.
Wrestling, be it Greco Roman, freestyle or the women’s division, is a discipline where smaller countries have achieved Olympic glory.
“This isn’t a rich man’s sport,” Olympic gold and bronze medalist Rulon Gardner said. “This is a sport that’s done from the old Soviet Union countries, all the way to Russia, to Cuba, to South America, to Africa. Wrestling is a sport that has almost 200 federations or governing bodies that support it.”
Wrestling had 71 countries send wrestlers compete in London. While the Puerto Ricans took home just one medal — Espinal’s silver medal was just one of eight Olympic medals won by an athlete representing Puerto Rico in Olympic history — 28 other countries brought home medals.
The largest nation by population, China, brought home a medal while the Russians took home 11. Japan and Iran earned six medals while Azerbaijan won seven. The United States won four medals.
Although those nations all boast sizable populations from which to draw wrestlers, countries as small as Armenia and Estonia, with 3.2 and 1.2 million people, respectively, also fielded an Olympic medalist despite not having a college wrestling pool to draw from like the United States.
“It’s really huge because in the wrestling scene, everybody’s competitive,” Penn State senior Quentin Wright said. “They might have some better coaching, better tradition, but still, if you’re that talented enough and you’re willing to work hard enough in wrestling, you could be the world champion.”
Facilities shouldn’t make a difference in wrestling and that what sets it apart from expensive sports where certain accommodations are mandatory and directly correlate to a team’s success, Wright said.
“There are places where people wrestle on grass. They wrestle on dirt. They wrestle on beaches,” Wright said. “It can be done anywhere an that’s what makes wrestling such a great sport and we have to keep it included in the Olympics.”
The competitive balance in the sport is unlike any other, Gardner said.
Gardner, who won Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 and followed that up with a bronze in Athens in 2004, has traveled the world during his international career. He’s seen countries wherein the population is stricken by poverty but inspired by wrestling.
A few months ago Gardner returned from a trip to Turkmenistan, where he helped out at a wrestling clinic. He estimated nearly 150 kids showed up.
“It was so popular. People said, ‘This is our national sport,’” Gardner said of the country’s future Olympic aspirations. “And this is a country in the middle of (Central Asia) and it’s what they love to do. I think if you drop wrestling it would be devastating for a lot of those countries because they will never have an opportunity to put an Olympic team together.”
Meanwhile, Franklin Gomez, another member of the NLWC, also competed for Puerto Rico in last summer’s Games shares his teammate Espinal’s view. Gomez believes the IOC’s decision to eliminate wrestling will be a crushing blow to smaller countries that lack the resources to compete and train for other sports.
“It’s unfortunate for us that we represent Puerto Rico,” Gomez, a former Michigan State standout, said. “We are so blessed to be here, training with the guys here. It was troubling too because most countries that do wrestling at the Olympic level, they are countries that are kind of poor. They’re not powerhouses like the U.S. and other countries.”
It will also have an adverse affect on the U.S. National Team which saw a resurgence last summer with the NLWC’s Jake Varner and Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs winning freestyle gold medals. Coleman Scott won a bronze medal for the U.S. in freestyle and Clarissa Chun won bronze in the women’s division.
Future Olympic hopefuls — a handful of which are on the Penn State wrestling team — could also see their dreams of competing for gold medals at the Olympics reduced to only vying for world championship titles. Penn State wrestlers David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Matt Brown and Wright all tried to make the U.S. Olympic team this summer at the team trials.
While the FILA World Championships are held in high regard, nothing compares to the Olympics, Wright said. Although he’s never competed, the former Bald Eagle Area star hopes one day he’ll be able to.
“You’re talking about your kids and having that dream of winning the gold medal,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, himself an Olympic gold medalist, said. “It inspires youth to be better, to work hard, to set goals. You have around 300,000 high school wrestlers in the country that dream about being Olympic champions. It’s very important that that goal and that dream be kept alive.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.