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Wrestling History


Wrestling at the 1904 Summer Olympic


A Journey into Pre - History : When, according to the anthropologists, paleontologists and experts on pre-history, the first man appeared on the earth, approximately five hundred thousand years ago, they already brought with them a precious inheritance from the primates and hominoids who had preceded them-play.

Long before he thought of organizing his life and striving to raise himself steadily higher, man engaged in play, since play precedes culture. It has been argued convincingly that play is the origin of all culture and that man has developed precisely because of this activity.

This is not the place to discuss whether this primitive play led to what is nowadays known as sport. If any differences existed, they must have been very minor.

Our purpose here is to present a historical and cultural survey of the physical exercise known as "wrestling", to ascertain whether it was a cultural factor and to define its function in primitive society. To make this possible, the reader will have to make an effort: he must lay aside, for the time being, all his ideas on what we understand by sport-including wrestling -and allow himself to be transported by his imagination to a remote world, a world of primitive beings living in a hostile environment which they are slowly beginning to understand and master.

This imaginary journey into the past reveals to us a man struggling for survival, who sees, in the natural phenomena around him, nothing but impenetrable mystery: water, fire, wind, drought, the rivers, the sun, the moon, the stars.

His intelligence barely enables him to understand his surroundings. But he has not yet started to ask himself about his own existence. Everything he needs is at hand: the animals always pass at the same seasons and at the same places, following the same paths. Whether in the form of hunting victories or manhood initiation rites, there is no lack of festivals.

Through his observation of the plants, rains and winds, man comes into a closer relationship with the divinity. He is dominated by it, receives food and fertility from it, and this awareness of his limitations gives rise to religion.

The divinity rules the world, pronounces on good and evil, grants joy and sorrow. Man basks in the warmth of the sun and shivers in the chill of the nights. The joy of birth is immediately overshadowed by the mystery of death ... and he suffers accordingly. And so, this primate, while continuing to play, creates a rite, an act enabling him to communicate with the divinities in order to ask for their protection or appease their wrath. It is in this setting that the dance first makes its appearance: man appeals to the hidden powers for good hunting or for victory over theenemy; the dance is a series of leaps, gesticulations and cries which gradually acquire rhythm and harmony. He may dance alone or in a group, holding or not holding hands. The ritual dance is the oldest way of expressing mankind's feelings; in prehistoric art, it haspride of place along with hunting scenes and drawings of animals-for example, the rock paintings in the caves of the French and Spanish Pyrenees and in Eastern and South-eastern Spain, all of which are many thousands of years old. This art should be regarded not as an artistic technique but rather as the symbolical expression of an animistic attitude; it represents the magic use of exorcism to promote hunting and the reproduction of the species. Art, together with religion and language, is the first conquest of the human spirit. "Homo sapiens", who succeeded Neanderthal man some forty thousand years ago in Europe, had to protect himself in his caves against the rigours of a climate which at that time, closely resembled that of certain parts of Siberia today. From Brawling to Wrestling :

Of the variety of theories on the origin of sport, there are three that deserve to be singled out. The first, advanced by Carl Diem, is that sport developed out of funeral rites. The author takes as his starting point the thesis of Ortega y Gasset that at began when any two shaggy men began to covet the same woman, the same animal or the same object.There, on the rock walls of their dwelling, the men of forty centuries ago immortalised their scenes of the hunt and the dance. It was at this time, that along with play, love, hunting and war, man learned to wrestle. There can be no doubt that wrestling (with bare arms) and boxing (with fists) preceded armed combat. Before the club, the assegai or the javelin lengthened his arm, prehistoric man used his own limbs-arms and legs-to overcome rival bands. Later, bows, arrows and slings made their appearance. Let us assume, therefore, that wrestling and boxing a particular time in its evolution, mankind passed through three main stages: in the first, whenever death occurred, a guilty person was sought out, either direct or by magic, and put to death. In the second stage, the victim was given a chance to save his life, by ordeal or a fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat. Lastly, in the third stage, the fight to the finish was replaced by an athletic contest.

According to the second theory, sport is the outcome of an instinctive impulse, which is also apparent in play. And lastly, according to marxist theory, the origin of competition in sport is one aspect of the process of labour and is therefore a purely economic question-the raising of production by means of magic devices.

Without wishing to make a value judgment, we can set aside the last two theories -instinct is surely animal in character, while the economic aspect is pure materialism-and adopt the thesis of Ortega, which is entirely compatible with the exercise of free will, whilemaking allowance for the influence of cults and magic.

Let us take a look, therefore, at the third stage in human evolution referred to by Ortega: bloodless competition. A tribe buries its chief; his body is lowered into the grave. At his side, are placed chosen objects of bone and flint, his arms and other prized possessions. As he is pale, he is painted with ochre. Food is placed nearby to start him on his long journey into the unknown. Before long, a group of dancers forms around the grave. They wear animal masks, as is characteristic of a hunting people. This is totemism, a form of religion based on consciousness of primitive unity between man and animal. The witch-doctor or magician carries out the appropriate exorcisms: he drives away the evil spirits and calls on the gods to protect the dead man throughout his journey. Then comes the group of dancers. Their gestures are not mere physical movements, but a projection of the spirits from the beyond. The animals personified by the masks will transmit to the dead man their qualities of strength, agility and courage, which are also communicated to the dancers themselves.

The rite concludes with a symbolic act: two young men, among the strongest of the tribe, step forward to decide by combat who is guilty of the chief's death. Their faces are brightly painted, their bodies girdled with bear's or stag's teeth, and seashells are strung around their necks. Their fight will last until the victory of one and the defeat of the other. The purpose is not so much to demonstrate which is the stronger but rather to show the dead man who is guilty. They fight to avoid defeat, because defeat is shaming. But at the end of the fight, the dead man can begin his journey westwards-where the kingdom of the dead lies-and will leave pleased with his subjects because the guilty man has been found. This escatological and religious meaning is found in the funeral ceremony of Patrocles, sung in imperishable verse by Homer. It reappears in the Olympic Games of antiquity dedicated to the cult of Zeus. This same meaning is also encountered in the cults of many primitive societies, and in our times among what are wrongly called "modern savages".

In our age, after a very long evolution, the old ritual significance has been lost, and the fight has become a mere physical exercise, completely stripped of any sacred significance. But, hard though it may be to accept and incomprehensible though it may seem, wrestling was originally a cultural phenomenon closely linked with the cult of the dead, forming part of the rites and projected spiritually into the life beyond the grave. The Evidence from Literary Sources : The oldest writings that have come down to us are a collection of baked earthen tablets inscribed with cuneiform characters. They take the form of an epic poem concerning Gilgam, King of Uruk, of the first dynasty after the flood. Gilgam was a great hunter of monsters and a tireless traveller, and has been likened to the Greek heroes Hercules and Ulysses. The oldest fragments of these tablets were written some three thousand years B.C., but the events they describe date back to four thousand years B.C.

The narration is fascinating, but we need merely quote here the sporting episode of interest to us: "Preparations are being made to celebrate a marriage, with the festivities that are proper to such an occasion. Gilgam is determined to carry off the bride before her groom can take her to his home. At this point, Enkidon appears, a half-wild man, who has always lived among the animals as their friend. Enkidon is opposed to the King's design; he awaits him at the market square and confronts him. Although smaller, he is as strong as Gilgam. A terrible struggle takes place, the columns of the doors collapse and the walls crumble under their furious blows. The story goes that when each had forced his adversary to kneel, their anger passed and they fought no more".

The episode is related in detail, and the struggle described corresponds quite closely to the kind of wrestling we know today. The fact of "kneeling" is undoubtedly one of the distinctive features of the sport of wrestling. Incidentally, this episode is also the first drawn match in the history of wrestling.

From Sumerian literature, let us turn to Greek literature: the Iliad of Homer, an inexhaustible source of tales composed around the ninth century B.C., which lived as long as Hellenic culture itself. It is therefore worth quoting the struggle between Ulysses and his rival Ajax Son of Telamon as described in the poem: "Now tall Ajax Son of Telamon and crafty Ulysses, full of ardour, stand forth. They gird on their belts and go down to meet each other in the arena. Their strong arms grip each other like the beams of a great palace, artfully designed to protect it against the fury of the winds. Their shoulders strain, forced gack by each other's arms; sweat bathes their bodies, blood appears on their backs and thighs. Both strive for victory and the coveted tripod".

But Ulysses failed to overthrow Ajax who in turn did not succeed in forcing Ulysses off his balance "because he withstood him so well...". This is the second drawn match in the history of wrestling. When the Gods Fought among Themselves : The old poems about the gods are full of wrestling scenes, even involving in some cases gods of different sex. In fact, these scenes are encountered in every mythology worthy of the name. Whether under the heading of war or sport, wrestling forms part of the world of these divinities. The gods wrestle with other gods, with goddesses and with wild beasts. The symbolism is often obvious: they are abstract representations of the forces of the spirit, of the eternal struggle of good against evil.

The Greeks attributed the invention of wrestling to their gods. Apollo was one of the first to distinguish himself in the art; Hermes, the great god of the gymnasium, presided personally over wrestling exercises, and his protégé Autolycus taught the art to Hercules. Palestra, the daughter of Hermes, personified wrestling and Athena, according to Pindar, gave lessons to Theseus. Thus, Hercules conquered Antaeus by squeezing him in his arms and lifting him on to his shoulders. His skill resulted in his being worshipped as the undisputed master of wrestling. His rival Theseus, another mythological hero, fought with Cercion, a giant who forced all passers-by to fight him to the death. Theseus succeeded in overcoming the monster.

It would be wrong to end our journey back into fable without mentioning the famous wrestling match between the goddess Atalanta and Peleus, the hero, father of Aquileus. Peleus was not merely one hero among many: he had taken part in the expedition of the Argonauts and, in the thirteenth century B.C., was the victor in the first pentathlon. The five events won by Peleus included a wrestling match, which made Atalanta's victory all the more meritorious. In addition to a number of paintings depicting her fight with Peleus, we have a miniature of the goddess herself dated 460 B.C.  The Evidence from Art : Without the works of art that have been bequeathed to us by every people,the account we are endeavouring to give here would be far from complete. Art is of vital importance in the history of sport, since although literary evidence must not belittled, nothing is as vivid as a picture.

In the case of wrestling, for example, there is acenturies-old artistic tradition which has preserved its original spiritual meaning, and therefore its cultural content.

Before going on to some examples of ancient art, it is worth recalling the point that was made earlier about totemism. Of the many mythological adventures depicted, some have an indirect link with the existence of wrestling in antiquity.

For example, some of the bas-reliefs show gods or heroes wrestling with wild beasts. But the striking fact about them is that the latter are fighting upright, like human beings. Their stance is the same as that of a wrestler; hand-grips, leg-trips and other tricks are common. It can be concluded that the artists were familiar with wrestling and its techniques and chose to depict the animals as if they were men. Of this extensive artistic production which has come down to us, we propose to select a few examples for the reader. These works of art, now in a number of museums, cover a period of approximately thirty centuries, ranging from about 3,000 B.C. to the last years of the pre- Christian era.

In geographical terms, all these works come from the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, Asia or America. Summery : Ever since the paleolithic age, man has engaged in unarmed combat for ritual reasons. Although it is impossible to produce any direct evidence for this, comparative ethnology makes it possible to assert with complete confidence that this form of wrestling existed. To this day, it is practised by the primitive peoples of America, Africa and Oceania, some of whom still have a way of life virtually identical to that of the Stone Age.

The un-numbered photograph at the beginning of this article represents two wrestlers of the Nubaring tribe in the Sudan; they have belts hung with bells, are decorated with feathers and kind of long tail, and wear necklaces, bracelets and a number of other objects hardly suited to wrestling as we know it. It is in fact a ritual combat, held in connection with a local festival, probably celebrating the harvest or the New Year. The wearing of bells is a departure from prehistoric practice, unlike the feathers and necklaces, which are totemic symbols. Sufficient works of art and literature have come down to us from pre-history and history for it to be clear that wrestling is a cultural phenomenon closely linked with religious beliefs and their associated rites and ceremonies. Painting (on rocks, pottery and walls), sculpture (bas-reliefs, stone, marble or bronze statues), and decorated domestic articles (knife handles and furniture) all depict wrestling scenes faithfully reflecting their cultural setting.

To conclude, the decline of wrestling as a cultural phenomenon can briefly be explained as follows. With the appearance of professionalism in Greece towards the middle of the Vth century B.C., the urge to win at all costs divided sport in general from the cult of Zeus. Gradually, wrestling, like the other sports, became "independent" and shed its cultural associations for good. Henceforth, wrestling was a physical exercise pure and simple. Nowadays, this aspect is even more marked, but even so, a few traces of the former culture remain, such as the salute and the handshake at the end, which still give a faint suggestion of spiritual values.

History Of Wrestling : With the possible exception of track and field (athletics), wrestling is the most ancient sport known to have been continuously practised competitively. Wrestling was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 708 BC, shortly after the Games' recorded history began in 776 BC. Wrestling pre-dates the ancient Olympic Games. Cave drawings of wrestlers from 3000 BC in the Sumero-Akkadian civilisation have been found. Similar wall paintings exist from ancient Egyptian civilisations circa 2400 BC.

There are literally hundreds of styles of wrestling world-wide today, with many nations having indigenous forms. Among these are Glíma wrestling in Iceland, Schwingen wrestling in Switzerland, and Cumberland wrestling in Britain. But there are four main forms of amateur competitive wrestling practised internationally today: Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling, judo wrestling and sombo wrestling. Judo is considered a separate sport at the Olympics. Sombo is a combination of freestyle and judo and is most popular in the republics of the former Soviet Union, but it has not yet been contested in the Olympics. Freestyle wrestling is similar to American collegiate style, or folkstyle wrestling. Holds are relatively unlimited, provided they are not dangerous, and can be applied to any part of the body. Greco-Roman wrestling limits holds to the upper body. Olympic History : Wrestling was on the programme at the first modern Olympics in 1896, and 1900 was the only year that wrestling did not feature on the programme at all. Both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling have been consistently contested at the Olympics since 1920. Prior to that (except in 1908), only one form was used, usually Greco-Roman. Today the dominant country in wrestling is Russia, especially in the Greco-Roman style. The United States is close to the Russians in freestyle, however. Other countries which produce top international wrestlers include Iran, Turkey and Mongolia, and wrestling is the national sport of these three nations.

At the 2000 Games in Sydney the wrestling programme underwent a change. Since 1972, wrestling has had 10 classes in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, but during the Sydney Games only eight classes were contested in each style. The weights also changed slightly, and the lightest class, usually termed light-flyweight, has basically been eliminated.

When the modern Olympic Games resumed in Athens in 1896, organisers considered wrestling so historically significant that it became a focus of the Games. They remembered tales of wrestling competition in 708 BC, of oiled bodies fighting on sand in the ancient Games. Greco-Roman wrestling was deemed a pure reincarnation of ancient Greek and Roman wrestling. Eight years later, Olympic officials added a second category with far less history and far less grandeur, but great popularity. Commonly known as "catch as catch can", freestyle wrestling had become the staple of 19th-century fairs and festivals in Great Britain and the United States, a form of professional entertainment. Like Greco-Roman wrestling, it became a staple of the Games themselves.

In Greco-Roman competition, now dominated by Russia, wrestlers use only their arms and upper bodies to attack. In freestyle, where Olympic medallists in 1996 represented 17 different countries, wrestlers also use their legs and may hold opponents above or below the waist.

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