Wrestling, which can be traced back some 5,000 years, likely began as training for hand-to-hand combat or as a substitute for combat fighting that ended in the death of the vanquished. Although modern wrestling is largely standardized across the globe, early versions were as varied as the civilizations that practiced the sport—Babylonia, Egypt, Sumer, India, China, Japan, and Greece. Wrestling was a key component of the ancient Greeks’ social, educational, and military lives and is the subject of countless Greek coins, cups, vases, statues, and reliefs.
Part of the ancient Greek Olympics dating from 776 B.C., wrestling was also featured in the first modern Olympics, in 1896. Today several varieties of wrestling—Greco-Roman, freestyle, sumo—are still popular around the world. Professional wrestling, such as that practiced by the World Wrestling Entertainment, is a modern manifestation of the ancient sport that emphasizes theatrics and personality over skill and athleticism, and the Latin American lucha libre style blends standard professional-wrestling techniques with high-flying leaps and jumps.
Historically men have dominated wrestling, and male matches still overshadow those of women. But women are steadily gaining ground.
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Köhne, Eckart, and Cornelia Ewigleben, eds; Ralph Jackson, ed. English version. Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome. University of California Press, 2000.
Throughout history, women have generally been kept away from the wrestling mat. Societal taboos against their participation in sports—especially ones that require physical struggle—limited their opportunities. Although wrestling matches featuring women are known to have occurred in Sparta in ancient Greece—where women often trained alongside men—female wrestling didn't become an official Olympic sport until 2004. Despite acceptance by the influential International Olympic Committee and the growing popularity of female wrestling, women wrestlers still face barriers and discrimination around the world.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), only three U.S. states hold separate state championships for boy and girl wrestlers; in other states girls either have to compete with the boys or sit out the championships. In Vietnam the women’s wrestling team was forced to back out of qualifying rounds for the Beijing Olympics because Vietnamese government officials thought the women wouldn’t qualify.
Despite the obstacles, women are fighting back and creating opportunities for themselves. According to a survey conducted by NFHS, the number of female high school wrestlers in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1996-97 school year, and more than 5,000 girls participated in the 2006-07 academic year. In Bolivia sagging ticket sales for lucha libre matches bounced to new heights in 2001, when women started fighting.
Krisher, Cassie. "Pinning the Issue of Girls Wrestling in High School." National Federation of State High School Associations.
"Freestyle Wrestling." United States Olympic Education Center.
"Women Wrestlers Back Out of Beijing Qualifier." Vietnam News, May 22, 2008.
Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Yale University Press, 1996.
"Kristie Marano: The Ups and Downs of Wrestling." Women's Mat, May 1, 2008.
Last updated: June 30, 2008