The first real traces of the development of wrestling date back to the times of the Sumerians, 5000 years ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform, the sculptures and the low reliefs, are numerous sources that reveal the first refereed competitions, accompanied by music.
There are also many historical and archaeological traces of wrestling in Ancient Egypt. Among them, it is worth mentioning in particular the drawings discovered in the tombs of Beni-Hassan representing 400 couples of wrestlers. These drawings, as well as many other vestiges, witness the existence of corporations of wrestlers in Ancient Egypt, wrestling rules and refereeing codes.
For the Greeks, wrestling was a science and a divine art, and it represented the most important training for young men. Athletes wrestled naked, with their bodies coated with olive oil and covered with a layer of very thin sand to protect the skin from sunlight or from cold during winter.
After wrestling, they scraped this layer off with an instrument called strigil and washed themselves with water. Fights were similar to those of freestyle wrestling, as shown by drawings and inscriptions from that time. The competitor who first threw his opponent or first brought him down - either on his back, hips, chest, knees or elbows - was proclaimed the winner.
During the Ancient Olympic Games, from 708 B.C., wrestling was the decisive discipline of the Pentathlon. In fact, it was the last discipline to be held – after the discus, the javelin, the long jump and the foot race – and it designated the winner of the Pentathlon, the only crowned athlete of the Games.
The most famous of all wrestlers was Milon of Croton (student of the philosopher Pythagoras), six times Olympic champion (from 540 to 516 B.C.), ten times winner of the Isthmic Games, nine times winner of the Nemean Games, and five time winner of the Pythic Games. Legend has it that when he tried to splinter a tree with his own hands, his fingers got stuck in the split tree-trunk and he was devoured by a lion.
Wrestling in Roman Times was developed on the basis of the legacy of the Etruscans and the restoration of the Greek games. Wrestling was the favourite sport of young aristocrats, soldiers and shepherds. According to Classius Dion, the palestra was at the origin of the military success of the Romans.
In 393, Emperor Theodosius I prohibited all pagan games and outlawed the Olympic Games. Olympic Values sank into the dark Middle Ages, but they were always latent, without ceasing to exist. During Middle Ages and Renaissance, wrestling was practiced by the social elite, in castles and palaces.
Numerous painters and writers celebrated wrestling and encouraged its practice : Caravaggio, Poussin, Rembrandt, Courbet, Rabelais, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, etc. It is also interesting to mention that the first book to be printed came out in 1500, and that already in 1512 came out the wrestling manual in color by German artist Albrecht Dürer.
The attempts made to restore the Olympic Games were numerous, but it was not until 1896 that they were re-established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. After the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, the development of new international sport federations and Olympic committees were accelerated.
The first Olympic Congress took place in 1894 at « la Sorbonne » and decided of the ten sports that would be part of the Olympic program : athletics, wrestling, rowing, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, swimming, shooting and tennis (see the congress minutes). During the wrestling tournament in Athens, there were no weight categories and all five competitors wrestled under rules similar to those of the professional Greco-Roman wrestling.
The matches lasted until one of the competitors won. It was allowed to interrupt and resume the matches on the following day. The first Olympic champion – the German athlete Schumann – who was not a trained wrestler, was also the winner of horse jumping and parallel bars.
Schumann succeeded to beat the English weightlifting champion Launceston Elliot, who was heavier than him, by executing a quick and accurate body lock.
In Paris, in 1900, and for this unique occasion in the history of the modern Olympic Games, the Games did not include wrestling in their program, even if at the same time, professional wrestling was at its best shape at the Folies Bergères and the Casino de Paris.
Professional wrestling began in France around 1830. Wrestlers who had no access to the wrestling elite, formed troupes that travelled around France showing their talent. Wrestlers thus frequented wild animals’ exhibitors, tightrope walkers and bearded women. Showmen presented wrestlers under names such as “Edward, the steel eater”, “Gustave d’Avignon, the bone wrecker”, or “Bonnet, the ox of the low Alps” and challenged the public to knock them down for 500 francs. In 1848, French showman Jean Exbroyat created the first modern wrestlers’ circus troupe and established as a rule not to execute holds below the waist.
He named this new style « flat hand wrestling ». Upon Mr. Exbroyat’s death in 1872, Mr. Rossignol-Rollin attorney from Lyon assumed the direction of this troupe and was soon noticed for his ability to advertise, to « arrange » matches and to reward wrestlers in the name of the audience.
The French influence extended to the Austrian Hungarian Empire, to Italy, to Denmark and to Russia and the new style circulated under the name of Greco-Roman wrestling, classic wrestling or French wrestling.
Professional wrestling matches were thus organized everywhere in Europe with variable programs and competition rules according to the taste of wrestlers, of managers and of the audience. In 1898, the Frenchman Paul Pons, also named “the Colossus”, was the first Professional World Champion just before the Polish Ladislaus Pytlasinski.
Some other great champions succeeded him, like the Turkish Kara Ahmed (the eastern Monster), the Bulgarian Nikola Petrov (the lion of the Balkans) or the Russian Ivan Poddoubni (the Champion of Champions).
At the end of the 19th century, professional wrestling was the most in vogue sport in Europe, but it started to degrade from 1900 because of the pre-arranged matches, the announcement of forgery, false victories and false nationalities of the competitors.
The rediscovery of Olympic amateurism encouraged the creation of numerous clubs and schools that finished professional wrestling off. However, from a historical point of view, professional wrestling has its indisputable merits.
Competitions contributed to making wrestling more popular, the physical aspect of wrestlers served as a model to young men and the training system allowed amateur wrestling clubs to rapidly become more structured.
Modern Olympic Wrestling
In 1904, freestyle wrestling was first introduced during the St. Louis Games and was only disputed by American wrestlers. It was only during the fourth Olympic Games held in London in 1908 that competitions were organized for both styles.
At the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, freestyle wrestling was again absent from the program and glima competitions (Icelandic wrestling) were organized. Wrestling matches took place on three mats in the open air. They lasted one hour, but finalists wrestled without limit of time. The match which confronted the Finnish wrestler Alfred Johan Asikainen and the Russian Martin Klein lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes and appears on the Guinness Book of Records. Both wrestlers, having the same score, were separated by two periods of three minutes of ground wrestling.
The Russian finally defeated the Finnish who weighed 8 kilos (17.64 lbs) more than he did. Exhausted by this match, Martin Klein could not beat the Swedish Johansson who won the gold medal for the 75 kilos (165.35 lbs).
From this date, and encouraged by the newly created International Federation, wrestling developed in every country. Northern Europe countries maintained during many years the monopoly of Greco-Roman wrestling, whereas freestyle wrestling was largely dominated by the English and the Americans.
In Amsterdam, in 1928, the Egyptian wrestler Ibrahim Mustafa was the first African wrestler to win an Olympic title. The Japanese Shohachi Ishii won the first Asian title at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, in 1952. Numerous legends shaped the history of wrestling around the world and it would be impossible to name them all.
However, four wrestlers have deeply changed the history of Modern Olympic Games by winning three Olympic titles : the Swedish Carl Westergren (Greco-roman wrestling in 1920, 1924 and 1932), the Swedish Ivar Johansson (Greco-roman and freestyle wrestling in 1932, and freestyle wrestling in 1936), the Russian Alexandre Medved (freestyle wrestling in 1964, 1968 and in 1972) and the Russian Alexandre Karelin (in 1988, 1992 and 1996). After obtaining his third title, Alexandre Karelin decided to conquer his fourth title at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, but to the general surprise, he was beaten by the American wrestler Rulon Gardner.
In 2002, during the World Championship held in Moscow, FILA awarded the title of Best Wrestler of the Century to both Russians : Alexandre Medved (for freestyle wrestling) and Alexandre Karelin (for Greco-roman wrestling), offering them the FILA Gold necklace, award generally reserved for heads of state.
A hundred years after the introduction of freestyle wrestling in the Olympic program, worldwide wrestling entered a new era with the acknowledgement of female wrestling as an Olympic discipline on the occasion of the Athens Games in 2004.
This decision is part of the policy of the IOC that aims at establishing equality in sport, and legitimized the efforts made by FILA to sustain the development of female wrestling since the end of the 80s.