The ancient Olympic Games were firmly rooted in Greek mythology, with at least two myths explaining the origins of the games. In one version, the gods themselves contested the earliest games, and Zeus crowned the winners. Today the term Olympian can mean either one of the gods once thought to live upon Mount Olympus or an athlete who has competed in the Olympics. Modern hero worship continues, although the objects of our worship are no longer mythological beings like Heracles, but rather mortals whose physical abilities strike us supernatural.
The most famous of the ancient Olympic athletes was the wrestler Milo of Croton, who won five championships. The man became a mythological figure, said to have carried a bull upon his shoulders and died trying to rip a tree in half. References to Milo appear in the works of Emily Bronte, Rabelais and Shakespeare.
Given wrestling’s ancient pedigree, it was no surprise that the first modern Olympics, held in 1896, included wrestling, as have all the summer games since 1904. What was surprising, however, was the Feb. 12, 2013, vote by the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to drop wrestling following the 2016 games. The sport had one chance to remain part of the Olympics, and it was a long one. Wrestling would need to compete against seven non-Olympic sports, including baseball/softball and squash, for the final slot on the program.
Full Circle: The 209 Days that United the World and Saved an Olympic Sport tells the story of how wrestling battled back from elimination to regain its place in the pantheon of Olympic sports. Full Circle is a coffee-table book written by T.R. Foley (who works out at the same gym I do) and full of lavish full-color photos compiled by photo editor Tony Rotundo.
Foley and Rotundo present the narrative chronologically, numbering their sections from Day 1 (the elimination vote) all the way through to reinstatement on Day 209. Brief text explains the significant milestones along the way, but the pictures really tell the story.
The IOC gave three reasons for dropping wrestling: low television ratings, gender inequality and organizational dysfunction. Wrestling had to remedy this third deficiency first. The sport’s governing body, known by its French acronym, FILA, accepted the resignation of president Raphael Martinetti (Switzerland) and appointed Serbia’s Nenad Lalovic interim president on Day 6. Lalovic’s broad shoulders and smiling face can be seen throughout the book, evidence of the public relations skills that ultimately won the day.
Under new management, FILA set out to correct the other two deficiencies. While it remains to be seen whether the general public will tune it to watch wrestling in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Full Circle documents the sport’s efforts to expand its popularity. On Day 96, FILA enacted new fan-friendly rules to increase scoring and make the action easier to follow. In addition, the Save Olympic Wrestling movement enlisted the aid of celebrities like actor Billy Baldwin and former UFC champion Randy Couture (both ex-wrestlers), and even athletes from other sports, like NBA legend Magic Johnson and MLB All-Star Johnny Damon. In a brilliant use of social media, the #TakeAStance campaign (launched on Day 178) encouraged supporters to upload pictures of themselves in wrestling stances to social media, and the best of these shots are included here.
The third deficiency noted by the IOC was gender inequality. Women’s freestyle wrestling debuted at the 2004 Athens games, but the perception remains that wrestling is for men only. Foley and Rotundo do a good job dispelling that myth with lots of action shots from women’s competitions, as well as highlighting the role that women played in the political fight to reinstate wrestling. FILA added to new weight classes for women and gave them a greater role in the organization.
Throughout the 209 days, the strongest argument in favor of wrestling was that the sport has been practiced by every culture that has ever existed, a tradition that continues today. Foley traveled to Turkey, Mongolia and Chad to cover folk wrestling competitions. And in the spirit of the ancient Olympic truce, love of sport trounced international politics. A pair of unlikely heroes emerged: leaders of two wrestling powerhouse nations, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The photo-heavy format provides a feeling of reliving those tumultuous months, but it comes with some drawbacks. When I followed this story back in 2013, I felt frustrated by my inability to understand the governance structure and decision-making processes of FILA and the IOC. I would have appreciated deeper analysis to pierce the opacity of these international bureaucracies. But on the whole, the pictures succeeded in capturing the beauty of the brutality of the world’s oldest sport.
Full Circle is a must for wrestling fans, as well as those with an interest in the politics surrounding international athletics. But the book is also a “how-to” guide for grassroots organization, demonstrating how a diffuse group with a strong passion overcame long odds in a short period of time. In 2013, wrestling fought off its back to score a come-from-behind victory, and Full Circle gives you a matside seat for every thrilling moment.