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History of Greco-Roman Style Wrestling

Posted by Jeffrey Pape on

Greco-Roman style wrestling gets its name from its similarity to the type of wrestling that was practiced at the ancient Greek Olympics beginning in 708 BC. Wrestling is often considered the oldest recognized sport in history. Although it does differ from actual historical Greek wrestling, the main differentiation of Greco-Roman wrestling is the prohibition of holds below the waist. Opponents must wrestle using only the arms and upper body.

The modern version of Greco-Roman style was developed in the 1840s by a French soldier, Exbrayat, who exhibited his style at fairs and emphasized his “flat hand wrestling.” The style soon became popular throughout continental Europe, with tournaments bringing large sums in prize money. The sport appeared at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and except for the Games in 1900 and 1904, it has been an Olympic staple ever since. The United States did not enter Greco-Roman style Olympic competition until 1952, and since then has only taken home three gold medals.

In its infancy, modern Greco-Roman style wrestling could be quite violent. Chokeholds and body slams were not uncommon, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1800s that officials banned gouging and even punching. Matches could last for an indefinite amount of time, with some well-known matches continuing on for 8 or 9 hours, such as was the case at the 1912 Olympics, when a match between Finland and Sweden went on for 9 hours, after which officials called a draw and gave a silver medal to both opponents. Regulations began to change in 1921 to shorten bouts and disallow the most dangerous of moves.

Greco-Roman Wrestling Gear

Wrestling gear for Greco-Roman style matches is similar to that for freestyle. Each wrestler needs to be equipped with the following:

  • Wrestling singlet (in Greco-Roman style, typically one opponent wears blue and the other wears red).
  • Wrestling shoes with rubber soles for traction.
  • Wrestling headgear for ear protection.
  • Handkerchief, or blood rag, for quick first aid and cleaning up any blood that has dripped onto the mat.

Both Greco-Roman style and freestyle wrestling were nearly scrapped from the Olympic program for the summer 2020 Games, but later they were reinstated, proving the value of the sport to athletes and fans.