Wrestling, Greco-Roman. Encyclopedia of World Sport

Greco-Roman wrestling is actually a development of
19th-century Europe, where it became popular as both
an amateur and professional sport and appeared in the
first modern Olympics. It has maintained its popularity, especially among wrestlers in Europe.
Various indigenous forms of wrestling in Europe that
restrict holds to the upper body may have contributed
to the development of the Greco-Roman style. The
British style of Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling, for example, allows a variety of trips that are not
permitted in Greco-Roman, but its restriction of arm
holds to the upper torso is similar.
The continental name, Greco-Roman, reflected the
classicizing tendency of European athletic movements
of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was widely, though
mistakenly, believed that the Greeks had a separate
wrestling competition called upright wrestling in
which only upper body holds were permitted. By the
late 19th century, Greco-Roman wrestling enjoyed
great prestige and popularity in continental Europe.
The sport never achieved lasting popularity in the
English-speaking world, yielding place to the more natural and unstructured freestyle forms. Its popularity in
Europe, on the other hand, was such that virtually all
19th-century capital cities hosted international tournaments, often with enormous prizes.
Greco-Roman wrestling appeared at the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, where three contestants competed in the heavyweight class. Freestyle, by
comparison, did not appear in the Olympics until the
1904 games in St. Louis. During this century, the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania, Japan, Sweden,
and Finland have shown remarkable success in
Olympic competition.
Rules and Play
In the Greco-Roman style, wrestlers may not take holds
below the waist or even use their legs actively in holds;
thus the leg takedowns and trips fundamental to
freestyle wrestling are barred. The arm drags, bear
hugs, and headlocks of freestyle wrestling, on the other
hand, are a central part of the Greco-Roman wrestler’s
repertoire and are carefully refined. Far from creating a
dull contest, the restriction of holds to the upper body
has encouraged the use of a spectacular series of throws
called souples, in which the offensive wrestler lifts his
opponent in a high arch while falling backward to a
bridge on his own neck and bringing his opponent’s shoulders into contact with the mat. Even in wrestling
on the mat (par terre), the Greco-Roman wrestler must
seek ambitious body-lock and gut-wrench holds to attempt to turn his opponent for a fall. The ability to arch
backward from a standing position onto one’s own
neck confidently and safely while lifting and turning
the opponent to the mat is crucial for success. The rules
of the International Amateur Wrestling Federation
(Fédération Internationale des Luttes Amateurs)
strictly prohibit stalling, and after 15 seconds of inconclusive action on the ground, the bout must resume
with both wrestlers in a neutral standing position and
working toward a throw.
Until the formalization of the federation’s rules in
1921, Greco-Roman bouts were notorious for their
length. On the professional circuit, bouts of two or three
hours were not uncommon. Even the early Olympic
bouts were prolonged: in 1912, Anders Ahlgren of Sweden and Ivar Boehling of Finland battled for nine hours
in the finals before the officials declared the match a
draw and awarded both men a silver medal.
Under modern rules, a bout consists of two periods
of three minutes each, and a point system identical to
that of international freestyle determines the victor in
the absence of a fall. As in freestyle, a fall is scored
when one wrestler holds his opponent’s shoulders motionless on the mat long enough for the referee to ascertain total control. The age categories, weight classes,
and dress follow the same rules as freestyle.
The Greco-Roman bouts of the professional circuit
were characterized by a high level of brutality: body
slams, choke-holds, head-butting, and even the introduction of caustic substances to weaken an opponent
were known. Today, all tactics that jeopardize the life or
limb of an opponent are strictly forbidden, and
notwithstanding spectacular back arches, bridges, and
throws, Greco-Roman matches proceed with a very
high level of safety.