Do you have a case of the Olympic blues? I don't mean because they are over, I mean because you couldn't get interested in them in the first place? You aren't alone. If you were born before 1968, there is a void where the Olympics used to be. In 1972 and 1976, 25 percent of American households tuned in to watch. Today it's 15.8 percent, the continuation of a downward trend that not even bikini volleyball can reverse.
Yes, the TV landscape has become more fractured -- in the 1970s you had a choice of the Olympics or Mannix. But since 1972 the Super Bowl has gone from a 42 to a 58 share and today competes against scores of movie channels, the Lingerie Bowl and FunnyOrDie.com. The Olympics are missing something, and it doesn't take Vince McMahon to tell you that something is the evil empire.
Forty years ago it was excruciating to watch the Russian Valeriy Borzov beat our sprinters on the track and little Shirley Babashoff unable keep up with East German Kornelia Ender in the pool. Cubans Alberto Juantoreno and Teofilo Stevenson drove us to despair. We tuned in to see Capitalists v Communist -- Kip Keino, the Kop from Kenya the exception that proved the rule -- we were interested in competition between geopolitical enemies.
Back then it was an uphill battle for the West v the Warsaw Pact. In 1976 the Soviets won forty-nine golds compared to the US tally of thirty-four. Compounding the issue was West Germany, France, Great Britain and Canada won a combined 15 while the countries behind the Iron Curtain -- not including the Soviet Union -- won 60. We were outgunned and not even Bruce Jenner could turn the tide.
If that sort of sporting challenge against geopolitical foes is what it takes to get you back in to the Olympic spirit, then you need to pay attention to Olympic wrestling. The U.S. is one of the best teams, and our top rivals are an expanded axis of evil. Russia and Iran are generally considered to be the premier wrestling countries, with former Soviet Republics Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus and the Ukraine all very tough. North Korea and Cuba have world class competitors, while none of our traditional allies and only one of our modern allies, Japan, figured in the top 10 in Istanbul at the 2011 world championships.
For an American, this makes for an exotic and exciting tableau and the atmosphere at London's Olympic wrestling was fantastic. The venue was sold out for all six sessions and Iranians, Georgians, Russians and Indians (it is London) all turned out in large and boisterous numbers. So did Americans, though it might be suggested we can come up with something a little more nuanced than "USA, USA" -- do we want to forever be the Donald Trump of international rooting sections?
The wrestling itself, of course, was superb. But the heightened drama of Olympic competition was unexpected. I had attended those 2011 world wrestling championships in Turkey and the atmosphere there, in a country that loves its wrestling, paled in comparison to London, where wrestling is as important to the locals as trainspotting is to the rest of us. It drove home how much the Olympics mean, particularly to competitors in sports where an Olympic championship is the pinnacle.
Coming in to the tournament the U.S. team was a question mark. Men's freestyle is the glamor portion of the wrestling slate and we had hit a low with only one medal in that discipline in Beijing (albeit a gold by Henry Cejudo) and had had some poor showings in subsequent world championships. But a relatively strong third place team score at the 2011 world's generated excitement heading in to 2012. On the first day of freestyle competition two weight classes were decided, including 74kg, where the brightest U.S. star, defending world champion, enthusiastic tweeter and cotton candy connoisseur Jordan Burroughs competes. In London he lived up to the hype as he beat an Iranian in front of a loud Persian contingent in the final. Burroughs remains undefeated in international competition, and has a chance to challenge John Smith as the best wrestler this country has ever produced. Smith won six world titles between 1987 and 1992 including two Olympic golds. Burroughs has two, and at only 24 years old is likely not yet at his physical peak as a wrestler. He might have Smith's skill, let's see if he has his tenacity.
Day two brought three more weight classes, and two U.S. wrestlers advanced to the semis, and one to the quarters before each was knocked out of the championship bracket. Coleman Scott, who qualified for the team only after winning a mini tournament in Times Square in June, rebounded to win a bronze, a great result for a guy that is very easy to root for.
On the final day, two more weight classes and one more US medal, a second gold, this time from Jake Varner at 96kg. If we award three points for a gold medal, two for silver and one for bronze the US tied Russia and Azerbaijan for first place, an exceptional result.
As adults we know our county's medals bear no relation to our qualities or future as a nation. How much did Leipzig citizens benefit from East Germany's haul of forty golds in 1976 (more than the U.S.'s 36 not to mention West Germany's 10) and how little do Brazilians and Indians today care that they won zero that year? Accurate predictors of national well-being, medals are not. But even at this age it is hard not to get caught up in athletic events when the other country's leader accuses our Secretary of State of fostering unrest, or use our flag as kindling. If you are looking for great sporting competition that, like in the old days, feels like something more, the wrestling world championships are for you -- Uzbekistan 2014 anyone?