On TV, Olympic athletes can seem larger than life, resurfacing for a month every four years to showcase their talents on a global stage.
Few can relate to them better than Ohio wrestling coach Joel Greenlee.
Greenlee is in his 17th season as Ohio’s top coach and has been named the Mid-American Conference’s top coach (2001) and the nation’s top assistant coach (1998).
His brightest accomplishment, however, could be said to have come from the center of the mat rather than directing traffic from its edges.
Greenlee was a two-time All-American heavyweight at Northern Iowa and placed second in the 1992 Olympic Team Trials, where he was selected as a training partner for Team USA.
Bruce Baumgartner, the heavyweight who wrestled ahead of Greenlee, went on to win his second gold medal in the Barcelona games.
Because of his brush with Olympic wrestling, Greenlee was particularly shocked when, last February, members of the International Olympic Committee voted to drop wrestling from the 2020 summer games, diminishing a sport that dates back to the Olympics of ancient Greece. Wrestling has since been reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2020 and 2024 games.
“I think a lot of the reasoning was political,” Greenlee said. “More … countries won medals in wrestling than nearly every sport on the Olympic program, including sports such as swimming, which awards many more medals. It shows our universal reach.”
The worldwide outrage was one of the most interesting aspects of the Olympic wrestling controversy. The backlash from the decision has given common ground to typically unfriendly nations, such as Iran and the U.S., something former Ohio assistant wrestling coach David Ridpath thinks got the attention of the IOC. Ridpath is an associate professor of Sport Administration at Ohio University and is co-editor of the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. He coached under former Ohio wrestling coach Harry Houska from 1994-95.
“It’s been nice to see Iran and the U.S. speak with one voice,” Ridpath said. “I do think that’s something that the Olympic committee really took notice of. You have these countries who are usually hostile toward each other now in lockstep, and that’s what the Olympics is supposed to promote. It’s supposed to be about countries getting along and coming together in athletic competition.”
The collective international outcry made enough noise that, when the IOC voted on which games to include in 2020, wrestling defeated baseball, softball and squash to win reinstatement. The president of wrestling body FILA called it the “most important day in the 2,000-year history of our sport.”
While wrestling has survived this temporary setback, Greenlee isn’t convinced that the sport is safe from similar headache in the future.
“I don’t think we are out of the woods yet,” Greenlee said. “We must continue to fight and not get complacent.”
This article originally appeared in print under the headline, "Ohio’s Olympian"