What were these Olympians talking about this past week?
“There is nothing like this, it is as special an event as anywhere in the world and I will always remember such a special day.” How about: “This is the greatest stage in the world, it doesn’t get any bigger or better anywhere.”
The trip to London this summer? Memories of a World Championship? A look back at previous Olympic glory? No. It was about an exhibition, albeit one leading into London for the high profile U.S. Olympic wrestling team, and it was not in London or Rio or even a hotbed of wrestling like Iowa City or Oklahoma. It was at “The Crossroads of the World,” Times Square, on a Thursday night in June. The event was tabbed “Grapple In The Apple” and it was staged by “Beat The Streets,” the grassroots program which funds innercity wrestling and education programs for boys and girls. The US Freestyle Olympic team took on a group of elite Russians in Dealy Square before a mix of tourists, wrestling enthusiasts, sports fans, athletes and donors that at any time could have numbered 10,000 if you counted the double decker buses that stopped to watch or the people propped against the office windows or the Times Square McDonald’s.
The result was a win in the dual meet for the U.S., an Olympic berth for Coleman Scott, who survived a marathon best two of three wrestle-off from Shawn Bunch to take the final spot on the squad, a chance for some of the elite BTS wrestlers from as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore but as close as Brooklyn and Staten Island to try the bright lights of Broadway, some essential dollars raised by the program, and tons of media exposure and good will generated for a sport which is long on tradition and loyalty but sometimes is off the map on exposure during non-Olympic years. It was as good a launching pad for a sport heading towards London as anyone could hope, all fueled by the vision of the grassroots New York based organization run by hedge fund impresario Mike Novogratz and his team of coaches and volunteers.
“This is such a special group and an amazing night, it really helps us all grow a sport we love so much,” said U.S. coach Zeke Jones, who brought some of his best guys, including New Jersey native and medal hopeful Jordan Burroughs, in for the special dual meet for the second straight year.
While people did brave the weather, which produced some showers early but not enough to dampen the enthusiasm or electricity in Times Square, to see these elite athletes compete, the real winners in the night were the literally thousands of kids who will get a chance to improve academically and athletically because of the night.
“We have so many kids in our program who may not get a chance to experience athletics or do well in school if nights like this and the work of our leadership and volunteers did not exist, so it is really amazing to see what can be done on such a great stage,” said BTS COO Bill Crum. “A lot of people came tonight for the experience, but the real payoff will be down the line in the gyms with the young people of the program.”
So much has made about London 2012 being the first real “experiential” Olympics because of the advent of social media, but the real experience will come not from twitter or Facebook but from people who get a chance to experience a little taste of the grand stage themselves, live and in person. While probably few in New York on Thursday will get a chance to go abroad for the Games this summer, many will have gotten a taste this June in a somewhat unlikely place, on the streets of the Big Apple. A once in a lifetime experience not just for those watching, but also for the participants.
Not sure? Just ask them.