There is a seemingly endless list of subjects that San Marino resident Andy Barth could discuss to fill an hour at City Club, but on Tuesday night, the former school board president was called upon to discuss his role as a team leader for the United States national wrestling team and his experiences at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympiad.
Calling someone who has ever wrestled a “former wrestler” is about as inaccurate as calling someone a “former Marine,” and Barth has engaged in a lifetime of support for the sport.
A New York native, Barth wrestled at Cornell and later established the first endowed head coaching program at his alma mater. His dedication to the sport brought him to the attention of USA Wrestling, its governing body, and he was asked to serve on the board of directors.
“On February 11, 2013, I began a 4-year term on the board of USA Wrestling,” Barth said. “On February 12, 2013, the International Olympic Committee announced it was going to drop wrestling,” he add ed wryly as the audience alternately gasped and laughed.
“That is more than what I expected,” he said. “I was hoping for a little better start.”
Many know the ending of the story, but Barth was kind enough to offer a reminder.
“We did engage in a very successful campaign to get wrestling back in the Olympics,” he said. “Wrestling was saved and reinstated. Wrestling will be safe and you will be watching wrestling in every Olympics going forward,” he said, as the audience applauded.
Dick Pearson, City Club’s 1st Vice President, then asked Barth a few questions, beginning with a query as to how Olympic wrestlers are chosen by their countries.
“The process by which American wrestlers are chosen for the Olympics is a very democratic one,” he said. “They have to earn their spot. I say that because in other countries, coaches might pick someone else. In the United States, the only advantage is that if you won a medal the previous year, you are given a bye to the finals. The Olympic trials are held 5 or 6 months before the Olympics. The process is the same for all styles.”
Given his support of the sport, Barth was asked to serve as a team leader for the United States’ wrestling contingent for the Rio de Janeiro games and received the opportunity to march in the opening ceremony. But things didn’t start off so crisply.
“The very first thing that happened,” he said, holding back on the punchline, “was a 4-hour delay and we missed our connections,” Barth explained as the audience roared with laughter.
“The opening ceremony is a massive, massive event,” he added. “There are 10,400 athletes and many other team leaders who march. The United States contingent was roughly 550 athletes.”
Barth let City Clubbers in on a little secret.
“There was a very hotly contested dispute,” he revealed. “Since the nations were arranged in the language of the home nation, the United States was listed in the ‘E’s’ for Estados Unidos and the Olympic Committee wanted the USA to march out with the E’s. NBC wanted them to walk out with the U’s so that people would watch longer. We walked out with the E’s.”
Barth compared the experience to “the running of the bulls in Pamplona.”
“It happens in such a blur,” he said. “You just walk out. You are trying to hold up your camera…but then a really remarkable thing happens. The barriers between countries break down and within a half hour, there is just a blending and you really get to see what people talk about when they mention the Olympic Spirit. You don’t see any borders anymore. You realize that many athletes train together and know each other. They are happy to see each other and there just become little clusters of color.”
Though complimentary of the experience, Barth told the audience that Rio was not completely prepared for the experience, causing a few glitches.
“The Olympic Village was a very large set of apartment buildings,” Barth said. “The organizing committee stopped paying the workers two weeks beforehand and they thought that with the buildings complete they would get away with it. The workers thought otherwise and vandalized the apartment buildings.”
Barth revealed that the United States Olympic Committee paid out of pocket to bring in contractors and get everything fixed.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee wanted no credit,” said Barth. “They didn’t want to embarrass the Brazilian hosts.”
Barth said the United States “basically, finished 3rd” in wrestling at the Olympics.
“But we want to win. I thought we could have done better,” he said.
His tone quickly changed when he mentioned the Gold Medal-winning performances of Americans Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder.
“They were truly historic,” Barth said. “Helen beat a woman who had not lost in 15 years, and had won 3 golds and 13 Olympic or world championships. I don’t know how you compare that. That is a monumental accomplishment. We also had Kyle Snyder, who became the youngest American to win an Olympic Gold. We may not have had the quantity, but we got the quality.”
Snyder and J’Den Cox – another Gold Medalist – wrestle under the banner of Titan Mercury Wrestling, a club Barth began 2 years ago which in November won the World Club championship.
With his wife, Avery, in attendance, Barth mentioned the heavy security in Rio and an opportunity to meet world champion boxer Floyd Mayweather during a visit to the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
Barth briefly touched on other issues, including blood doping in wrestling.
“We don’t have a problem with it in the United States because we test,” he said. “For an athlete to dope, it would be almost impossible. The athletes can be called upon to supply a sample any time and it becomes very difficult to do it.”
He is excited about the possibility of the Los Angeles again hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024.
“We would love it from a wrestling perspective,” he said. “Wrestling would be held in Pauley Pavilion and UCLA would be the Olympic athlete center. Our Olympic footprint would be very small. It would be an LA County Olympics. I personally feel we have the best bid. With the new football stadium and our various high-speed rails. The other two cities are Paris and Budapest. Budapest is beautiful but I don’t think it has the capacity. As far as Paris is concerned, it would be exactly a century since it hosted the 1924 Olympics and there is a lot of sympathy due to the terrorist attacks. The United States has lost 3 previous bids.”
Barth then paused.
“What would I do?” he asked rhetorically. “Break with tradition and award 2 cities. One for 2024 and another for 2028.”
Barth was asked about his own wrestling career and his voice and carriage both reflected a nostalgic tone.
“I started at 14 in a Saturday morning program at the New York Athletic Club, where I met my high school coach,” he said. “I continued at Columbia and then at the New York Athletic Club, where I wrestled Greco-Roman. Wrestling teaches persistence, discipline, the ability to bounce back after a loss…humility. You learn that even when you win, there is somebody who might beat you tomorrow. But it takes a lot of hard work and teaches great values.”
He then joked, “Dan Gable said you have to be strong, flexible, durable, disciplined, learn technique…and you have to do all of that in absence of food,” as the audience laughted heartly.
When asked about the heightened level of security in Brazil for the Olympics, Barth said “The United States was active, helpful and supportive in helping. Once you got within a mile of a venue you couldn’t go 50 yards without seeing 2 military guys. There was very significant security you had to get through.”
The Ryan Lochte affair – during which the controversial swimmer made a claim that he and 4 other American Olympians were robbed at gunpoint that was later proven to be false – harmed the image of the U.S.
“They had gone to the Nth degree to make sure everyone was safe, so when the story came out they were really offended,” Barth explained. “Up until that time, there was tremendous support for the U.S. but after that, the cheers turned to boos. There was a lot of animosity because they felt they had done a credible job and provided a safe environment. And they did.”
Barth made a final comment about the huge traffic jams caused by the games.
“Maybe that was part of the security effort, to keep you frustrated,” he said, drawing one last wave of laughter.