Wrestling as a body-to-body combat sport can be traced back 5000 years to the times of the Sumerians. For the ancient Greeks, wrestling was both a science and a divine art, considered the most important training for young men. Athletes wrestled naked, with their bodies coated in olive oil and covered with a layer of thin sand to protect the skin. The competitor who first threw his opponent or brought him down on his back, hips, chest, knees or elbows was declared the winner. Wrestling was contested at the Ancient Olympic Games beginning in 708 B.C. when it was the deciding event of the pentathlon, the most prestigious of the competitions.
In the mid-19th century, rules were established in France that disallowed holds below the waist. This style spread throughout continental Europe under the name Greco-Roman wrestling. At about the same time, freestyle wrestling, in which all parts of the body could be used, was emerging in the United States and United Kingdom.
Wrestling was included at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 with a single open event that was essentially a Greco-Roman competition. Absent at Paris 1900, wrestling has been on the program of every Olympic Games since then. Freestyle wrestling debuted at St. Louis 1904, but it was not until four years later that both freestyle and Greco-Roman events were included. Women’s wrestling made its Olympic debut at Athens 2004.
The Olympic wrestling program underwent a major overhaul after the sport was recommended to be dropped by the IOC from the list of 25 core sports for the 2020 Olympic Games in February 2013. That prompted the international federation to institute rules encouraging better competition and re-distribute the weight classes, equalizing the number of women’s and men’s freestyle events. In September 2013, the IOC approved and reinstated wrestling for the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games.
In freestyle wrestling it is permissible to grasp the legs of the opponent, to trip the opponent and to use the legs as well as the upper body in the execution of any action. In Greco-Roman wrestling it is forbidden to intentionally grasp the opponent below the hips, to trip the opponent or to use the legs actively in executing any action.
All matches in a single weight class are held on one day. Each weight class is based on a 16-person elimination bracket. If more than 16 wrestlers are entered in a weight class, qualification matches are held. If fewer than 16 wrestlers are entered, some wrestlers will receive first-round byes. The bracket progresses from the round of 16 to quarterfinals to semifinals with the semifinal winners meeting in the gold medal match.
Wrestlers who lose to one of the eventual finalists are given a second chance to advance through the repechage. There are two groups in each weight class repechage: those who lost to the first finalist and those who lost to the second finalist. The winners of the two repechage groups each receive a bronze medal.
Matches consist of two three-minute periods, separated by a 30-second break. The winner is the wrestler with the most total points scored after the completion of both periods. A match can end early with an automatic victory if a wrestler shows technical superiority of eight points in Greco-Roman and 10 points in freestyle or by “fall” or pin, when both shoulders of the defensive wrestler are instantaneously held in contact with the mat for a sufficient time to allow the referee to observe total control.