By Anthony Zonfrelli
The worldwide wrestling community was shaken last week when the IOC ruled that it would remove the sport from the 2020 Olympics. This decision left many in disbelief—after foot racing, wrestling, added in 708 B.C., is the oldest sport in the history of the Olympics. Over the years, it has provided us with some iconic Olympic moments, including USA Heavyweight Rulon Gardner’s upset of Russia’s seemingly invincible Aleksandr Karelin in the Greco-Roman Gold Medal Match at the 2000 Olympics. What would Milo of Croton, a fabled Greek wrestler so feared that he won one set of Olympic Games when nobody dared to challenge him, have to say about this?
One explanation given for wrestling’s recent removal from the Olympic docket is its recent decline in public popularity. That seemed strange to me, as I was sure that many other Olympic sports (especially those with less of a storied tradition) are still not as popular as wrestling. To analyze my hunch, I looked at Google Trends data during the past three Olympics and compared the internet traffic of several of the other more obscure Olympic sports: equestrian, fencing, handball, archery, rowing, sailing, judo, and taekwondo. Here are the results:
Obviously, the search volume peaked for each sport during the summers in which the Olympics were held. Out of the nine sports in this sample, not only was Olympic wrestling never among the least popular searches in any of the last three Olympics, but it was the most popular each time. Though its Google Index has been decreasing over time, it is nowhere near as low as several of the other sports have consistently been. If any of these sports suffers from lack of popularity, it would undoubtedly be taekwondo, which was far and away the least searched sport in the sample each year. Olympic fencing and judo also showed signs of a systematic decrease in popularity over the last three Olympics. For some reason, Olympic rowing jumped up in popularity by 15 index points at the last Olympics, though this sudden internet popularity spike may be attributable to a certain American bronze medal winner, whose all-too-revealing photo received a healthy amount of publicity.
While the motives of people googling Olympic rowing may be murky, one thing can be said with certainty: wrestling is in no way the least popular Olympic sport. Milo of Croton rolls over in his tomb.