CrossFit, Olympic Wrestling and Dan Gable

Dan Gable wrestler ITB

Since there’s just a week to go, first things first: I’ll explain my plea below, but Olympic Wrestling is in danger of getting chopped from the 2020 Olympic Games.  At this link you can vote to help keep in on the program. For more information on this site.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being in CrossFit is that it’s made sports that I had little knowledge of more fun to watch. I had no idea, for example, what Olympic lifting was all about until I started struggling with the movements in a CrossFit gym.  And although CrossFit hasn’t (at least not yet or to my knowledge) incorporated some wrestling into its programming, the functional-fitness conditioning and mantra of sacrifice of the lifestyle has allowed me to greater appreciate the sport of wrestling. It’s why I’m supporting the organizations that are fighting to keep wrestling in the Olympic Games.

On the right, Dan Gable, wrestling great.
On the right, Dan Gable, wrestling great.

Some backstory. Around the time that Greg Glassman, a high school gymnast in the early 70s, had stumbled upon (and threw up from) the workout named Fran—21, 15, 9 of thrusters and pull-ups performed against the clock—the legendary Dan Gable was preparing for the 1972 Olympics in a sort of monomaniacal way that has long transcended the sport of wrestling and intrigues most anyone who learns about it. Gable’s legend had already been established through a high-school and college winning streak. He says that according to his logs, he hit the “Outliers” standard of mastery–10,000 hours of practice–when he was a freshman in high school. But it wasn’t until after his high school and college years, when he was training 7 hours a day, 7 days a week, when “I really got good,” he says.  At a time when the Soviet Union dominated wrestling, Gable went to Munich and not only won the gold medal, but didn’t allow a single point to be scored against him. There’s been plenty written about Gable over the last 40 years, including the recent profile in ESPN Magazine.

Gable was, and still is, about as high-intensity as they come. CrossFitters who don’t know him should get to know him. Although I never wrestled competitively, except for one season in junior high, like most Iowa boys who were athletes, Gable had a powerful influence. I went to the University of Iowa  where Gable spent his years (continuing to dominate) as a head coach. Gable was one of the reasons that in my mid-20s I gravitated back into athletics, running marathons and eventually competing in Ironman triathlon. Although we live in a society that is trying to sell you on luxury and comfort 24/7, Gable was the counterpoint: That living a hard, simple and demanding life is the truly satisfying life. I have no idea if Gable has ever been in a CrossFit gym, but I’m confident he’d approve of the old school equipment, no-bullshit simplicity and the competitive, high-intensity nature of the workouts.

Gable after winning 1972 Olympic Gold.
Gable after winning 1972 Olympic Gold.

Last February, the International Olympic Committee announced that it was seriously considering dropping wrestling from the list of core sports that will be a part of the 2020 Olympic Games. The core sports range from track and field and weightlifting to sailing and equestrian events. The decision as to whether wrestling will be dropped or not will be made when the IOC gathers in Buenos Aires between September 7 and 10.

An ideal that many, including myself, like to think the Olympics retains to some degree is an inclusive nature in at least some of the bedrock events. There are nearly 200 countries in the world. If an Olympic ideal is to bring the world’s youth together every 4 years to get together and compete in a peaceful setting, then you need to have sports that are inclusive. Sailing is not an inclusive sport. Equestrian is not inclusive. Running a marathon is. Throwing a shot put is. And so is wrestling.  You really don’t need much in the way of technology and equipment to wrestle.

Wrestling is reported to go back 7000 years BC. In archeological terms, that’s the neolithic era. Atlas and Odysseus wrestled. Thor wrestled Ella.

CrossFit and the sport of wrestling share some common bonds. Namely, they are both inclusive when it comes to athletic skills and capacities. The program is designed to develop the following general athletic attributes:

  1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
  2. Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
  3. Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
  4. Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
  5. Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
  6. Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
  7. Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
  8. Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
  9. Balance – The ability to control the placement of the bodies center of gravity in relation to its support base.
  10. Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity

While many sports, like distance running, for example, are heavily skewed toward a fraction of these attributes, the great wrestler works on them all. Not unlike MMA fighting.  While it would be hard to pull off given the structural point system of the CrossFit Games, it would be pretty great to see the best CrossFitters in the world put all of that athletic capacity into a wrestling tournament. They would be severely limited in the specific moves and techniques of the sport, but it would be a true test of their capacity for functional movements performed at high intensity.

Perhaps more relevant though is that the the lives the great wrestlers live–one of severe discipline and consumption of training pain—is the kind of thing CrossFitters aspire to with paleo diets and the nature of the workouts.

At any rate, while CrossFitters have become fans of Olympic lifting for obvious reasons, it would be great to see them get behind Olympic wrestling’s bid to stay alive.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.