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Q&A: Billy Baldwin’s plan to “Keep Olympic Wrestling”

May 16, 2013, 4:52 PM EDT

billy-baldwin

While many were simply mourning the IOC’s recommendation to remove wrestling from the 2020 Olympics schedule, Billy Baldwin was busy doing something about it. And trust us, he went full Baldwin. Billy named himself Hollywood Point Man for the “Keep Olympic Wrestling” effort and has has asked Olympic champs, Hollywood friends, and strangers on the street to pitch in by taking part in PSAs, interviews, and events, raising awareness, and talking about the value that wrestling instilled in their lives. We chatted with Billy about the future of the sport and somehow ended up in a bear hug at Wednesday’s “Rumble on the Rails.”

How’s your role as the Hollywood Point Person for Keep Olympic Wrestling been?

I’ve never done this, so I’m acting as a freaking publicist behind the scenes. I’ve had a couple of my actor friends show up for this, and it’s really so special that they would, and so important to the community. I want to make sure they talk to you guys and get the word out, so I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

Who all have you gotten in touch with about the movement?

Mark Ruffalo’s here, Mike Golic’s here, Ronnie Lott’s here. I’ve talked to Steve Buschemi and Boardwalk Empire director Timmy Van Patten. We have a good crowd coming out to LA, too. We have Mario Lopez and Matthew Modine and Tom Arnold and Randy Couture. I’m working on Jon “Bones” Jones.

Did they contacted you or vice versa?

I’ve been reaching out to a lot of people. Especially people who have a connection with the sport. Ruffalo just filmed Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher about Olympic wrestler David Schultz, and they had a lot of wrestlers on the set, so they’re having a little reunion of sorts. A lot of legends, like Gable and Stan Dziedzic and Gene Mills were his technical advisors on the set, and it was so funny to watch Ruffalo walk in here. Most people would just shake hands and say hello to each other, but wrestlers just start bear hugging and clinching [which is precisely what Billy did to SI's Nick Zaccardi and me right about here]. And to see Ruffalo do that the way we would do that, I was like, “He’s method. That’s method”

Have you been encouraged by the turnout for “Rumble on the Rails”?

It’s been a great event. I was thrilled to have the Iranian crowd here. I wish [the American team] had performed a bit better on the mat. We’ve got a big venue to fill Sunday in Los Angeles. It holds about 14,000 and we’ve already sold about 5,000, so we’ll be in good shape. But I think we’re going to be outnumbered by Iranian-Americans by about ten to one.

Why did you take such an active role in “Keep Olympic Wrestling”?

It’s just a very important cause to me. The sport has always helped to shape young boys into men by instilling the values and discipline and work ethic and mental toughness. And those values transcend the sport. When I stopped wrestling, they became tools for life. They served me well as a husband and a father and in the pursuit of my career. It can serve journalism, investment banking, show business. It’s the gift that’s served me through my thirties and forties, and into my fifties.

And there’s obviously something at stake for the world community.

Yes. If we lose wrestling it’s going to be bad for America, it’s going to be bad for high school and college wrestling in America. But we’re blessed. We have many other Olympic sports and many, many, many, events that we can compete in if you’re a parent looking for something for your kids to do. But in Iran, it’s their national sport. They don’t compete in twenty different sports. Some nations only compete in two or three. This is their NFL. These guys are their Babe Ruth, their New York Yankees, their national pastime. You can tell by how good they were today. And to take this away from some kid in a village outside of Tehran or on a farm in Azerbaijan is just an unenlightened decision.

So do you think events like “Rumble on the Rails” are ultimately the way back?

I think so. The IOC wants to bring back the 18 to 34 year old demographic, so they’re bringing in the halfpipe and the X-Games and they’re saying to wrestling, “We’re warning you. Find a way to make it better for television, cooler, sexier, more popular, and more profitable. And if you don’t, you’re out.”

What about the other sports that want their chance to compete in the Olympics?

They should have their opportunity, but not at the expense of wrestling. We have athletes on every continent, we had competitors from eighty countries in London, we had medalists from 29 countries, and to lose it would not just be unfair, it would be socially unjust.

How could wrestling have avoided ending up here?

I don’t want to bash the IOC, especially since our fate still lies in their hands, but I really truly don’t believe they should have recommended removing wrestling. I think they should have gone in and cleaned house in FILA. The governing body had some failed leadership. They just got lazy and complacent, with a lot of ego and hubris and parlor politics, and look where we are now because of their failed leadership. Now we’re in the process of addressing that issue, and we’re excited about what’s to come.

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