The world’s oldest competitive sport

Wrestling’s origins go way back in time. In fact when the ancient Games of the Olympiad were born, wrestling was already an ancient game.

Widely recognised as the world’s oldest competitive sport, wrestling appeared in a series of Egyptian wall paintings as many as 5000 years ago. When the Games began in 776 BC, more than two millenniums later, it included wrestling, and, in the years that followed, wrestling featured as the main event.

The sport would return in a similar role when the Olympic Games returned after a 1500-year absence in 1896. Organisers, seeking direct links to ancient times, found a natural in the sport that had enjoyed popularity across much of the ancient world, from Greece, Assyria and Babylon to India, China and Japan. They resurrected Greco-Roman wrestling, a style they believed to be an exact carryover from the Greek and Roman wrestlers of old.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, the wrestlers used only their arms and upper bodies to attack. They could hold only those same parts of their opponents. It worked nicely from a historical perspective, but another breezier style was sweeping across Great Britain and the United States by then. Known as “catch as catch can”, it had become standard fare ? and popular professional entertainment ? at fairs and festivals in both countries.

In 1904, the Olympic Games added the second wrestling event and called it “freestyle”. Now, wrestlers could use their legs for pushing, lifting and tripping, and they could hold opponents above or below the waist. Except for 1912, when wrestling was limited to Greco-Roman one last time, the Games never looked back.

The fame of that 1912 Greco-Roman-only affair endures, though, after producing the longest, most fabled match of the modern Games. Estonia’s Martin Klein and Finland’s Alfred “Alpo” Asikainen wrestled for 11 hours and 40 minutes until Klein finally pinned Asikainen. However, Claes Johanson of Sweden won the gold by default because Klein was too exhausted to return for the final.