Martial Arts in the Olympics: Have the Games Changed Wrestling? Is There Hope for Pankration?

Black Belt Hall of Famer Jim Arvanitis weighs in on the subject of pankration and the Olympics, while Black Belt contributing editor Mark Hatmaker looks at the evolution of wrestling and the Games.

In Part 1 of this series, Black Belt examined judo and how it's changed because of the Olympics. In Part 2, we looked at taekwondo and the effect the Games have had on the Korean martial art. In Part 3, the subject was the Olympics and karate — which, it was recently confirmed, will debut at the 2020 Games. Here, we discuss how wrestling has been altered and whether pankration has a chance of getting back in.

— Editors

Mark Hatmaker (Photo Courtesy of Mark Hatmaker)

ART: WRESTLINGADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 708 B.C.EXPERT:Mark Hatmaker, contributing editor, founder of Extreme Self-ProtectionQUESTION: How is Olympic wrestling different from the various styles of folk wrestling?MARK HATMAKER: In a nutshell, you’ve got two forms of wrestling in the Olympics: freestyle and Greco-Roman. Both are blends of traditional wrestling styles designed to meet an agreed-upon competitive standard that will translate across many styles and cultures. There are differences between freestyle and Greco-Roman, but if we allow for the simplistic observation that freestyle permits shooting takedowns on the legs and working the legs — whereas Greco-Roman does not — we’ve got a good picture of the two. Earlier versions of folk wrestling, many of which still exist, can differ on points as varied as one or both shoulders being required for a pin, mandatory grips, gear used in matches (belt wrestling and the like), time limits and so on. QUESTION: Did being in the Olympics change wrestling from a martial art to a martial sport?MARK HATMAKER: If legend is to be believed, the original incarnation of the Olympics had wrestling, boxing and, of course, pankratium in forms that were far more brutal. More latitude was given regarding the holds and locks that were permitted, and striking was not necessarily prohibited even in “straight wrestling” matches. As such, this gives more weight to the notion that wrestling used to be practiced as a martial art or warrior art. Then, with the resurrection of the Olympics in 1896, we see the transition to codified and restrictive rule sets that moved wrestling into the territory of sport. QUESTION: Has Olympic inclusion boosted the popularity of wrestling overall?Announcing a new low price on the Greg Jackson Mixed Martial Arts Core Curriculum, an online course from Black Belt magazine and the world’s leading MMA coach! Learn the best fighting techniques, combinations and strategies on your tablet or smartphone. More info here!MARK HATMAKER: This is a tough one to answer. The historical evidence seems to point to wrestling being quite popular in many cultures between the two Olympic eras. There’s hardly a village festival of note that didn’t include some gathering of locals to wrestle for bragging rights or town honors. If we accept that, then modern wrestling was merely keying into that popularity. It seems to be more since the advent of show/entertainment wrestling that we’ve seen a marked decrease in the actual sport’s popularity and a gradual disappearance from festivals. Some of this might be blamed on the show version of wrestling itself, where the spectacle of what’s clearly pretend becomes so entangled in some minds that — let’s face it — it delivers a crushing blow to the acceptability of what is legitimate. Wrestling is popular with youth, but we must look to show wrestling as one of the drivers of this. As show wrestling was rising in the 1920s and ’30s and taking over the legitimate circuit, many shooters — real-deal professional wrestlers with actual wrestling prowess — became disenchanted and left the circuit. Many of these athletes didn’t want to give up on the game and wound up starting high-school wrestling programs. QUESTION: Did the addition of wrestling to the modern Olympics change it from a form of self-defense to a “sport kids do in high school when they’re forced to”?Kelly McCann’s Combatives Self-Defense Course, a new remote-learning program from Black Belt, will help you fine-tune your street-defense skills using your tablet or smartphone! . MARK HATMAKER: Adding a rule set to protect athletes moved it a bit into the less-than-real-world-martial-arts category, but I say that with some qualification. If we accept that MMA is a sport — which it is, albeit a sport that seems like it has good transfers to self-defense — and if we acknowledge that most MMA fighters believe there’s no finer base for MMA than wrestling, we must conclude that wrestling is a sport. But it’s a combat sport that will stand you in better stead in a real-world confrontation than, say, tennis or basketball. All in all, the rules are there to protect the athlete, but anyone who’s been on the mat can tell you that, rules or not, if you aren’t prepared for what the wrestler is going to dish out, even inside the rule set, you’re going to get hurt.


Jim Arvanitis (Photo by Thomas Sanders)

ART: PANKRATION ADDED TO THE OLYMPICS: 648 B.C., MAY RETURN IN THE FUTURE EXPERT:Jim Arvanitis, Black Belt Hall of Famer, author of The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration from Myths to Modern TimesQUESTION: Was pankration a single system that was always part of the Olympics and used for war, or was there a “battlefield pankration” and a tamer “competition pankration”?JIM ARVANITIS:Pankration was a Panhellenic sport that was included in all the athletic festivals in Greece. It was first entered into the 33rd Olympic Games circa 648 B.C. It followed wrestling, which was the first combat-sport entry in 708 B.C., and boxing, which debuted in 688 B.C. One theory is that pankration was added to the program to fill the void left by boxing and wrestling; in other words, it would represent the ultimate form of combat competition. The goal was to attract the fittest and strongest athletes and allow them to use all methods of combat except biting and gouging. Silat for the Street is the title of a new online course from Black Belt Hall of Famer Burton Richardson and Black Belt magazine. Now you can learn the most functional silat techniques whenever and wherever you want on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Get more info here! In its earliest format, pankration was closely modeled after pammachon (“total fighting”), its battlefield component. Striking was given more emphasis than grappling, although ground skills became more necessary as the sport evolved. A “tamer” version, referred to as ano or orthostanden pankration, often served as a preliminary Olympic event and was favored in training. This variant employed lighter contact and omitted the more dangerous strikes and disabling holds. It was primarily stand-up fighting with throws, takedowns and a select number of submissions. Once the fighters hit the ground, the referee ordered them to their feet. QUESTION: Has its Olympic history had any effect on the current popularity of pankration?JIM ARVANITIS: Pankration enjoys its greatest popularity now throughout much of Europe. It’s safe to say that its history as the ultimate Olympic spectacle retains the same spirit, honor and integrity among those competing today. Is this the original hardcore pankration? Certainly not. Nor is it meant to be. It’s a safer alternative than professional MMA, one that appeals to a distinct group of athletes who maintain full-time occupations. However, their love for fighting and competing is just as great.

Jim Arvanitis (Photo by Thomas Sanders)

QUESTION: Do you think pankration will make it back into the Olympics? Would that be good or bad?JIM ARVANITIS: There was a failed attempt to bring pankration back to the Olympics when Athens was named the host for the 2004 Games. In the years leading up to the Games, in part because of the popularity of no-holds-barred fighting — which became MMA — and in part because of my efforts to restore pankration, there was a movement by leading karate practitioners in Greece to revive interest in the ancient fighting art/sport for possible inclusion. But the International Olympic Committee opposed it. Pankration also was denied acceptance when the modern Olympic Games were created in 1896. All other events were allowed in, but pankration was deemed “too dangerous.” However, it’s been my vision to see pankration return to its rightful place in the Games since I resurrected it in 1969. In the sense of preserving the Greek legacy, it would be the right thing to do. Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path! The IOC, however, has major concerns. The safety of the athletes is very important. With the rules watered down to promote safety, pankration would lose its connection to its roots. It would look more like a karate/jujitsu match with an inordinate number of rules and with winning based on points — as most tournaments are today. MMA is somewhat closer to original pankration, but despite its present status throughout the world, I doubt that the IOC would accept MMA contests because of the potential for injury. So I’m torn on whether pankration’s reinstatement as an Olympic event would be good or bad. QUESTION: Would any other hurdles need to be overcome for pankration to return to the Olympics?JIM ARVANITIS: One of the greatest challenges facing the inclusion of any new combat sport in the Games is the IOC’s standards, among the most important being safety. The IOC is also concerned with providing entertainment for spectators. This tends to be the reasoning for wrestling’s future status as a medal event. While both freestyle and Greco-Roman competition will be part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, they have been cut from the 2020 Games set for Tokyo — because the sport supposedly lacks a strong following and enough excitement to fill the stands. This is a sad excuse because wrestling has been part of the Olympic tradition from antiquity. Read Part 1 of this article (on judo) here.Read Part 2 (on taekwondo) here.Read Part 3 (on karate) here.
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