Much has already been said about the tragic departure of Jeff Blatnick, Olympic gold medalist and MMA commenter. Much less has been said, however, about the true and lasting significance of his contributions to American Greco-Roman wrestling, and of the full gravity of the legacy he left behind him. The loss of Jeff Blatnick was the loss of a true giant in the sport of wrestling.
Jeff Blatnick was the second American Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling. This is particularly impressive when one considers that the first American gold medal was won at the same tournament a mere two weight classes below his, and that, in the nearly thirty years since Blatnick’s Olympic triumph, the United States has only earned one other Olympic Greco gold.
The lasting significance of Blatnick’s Olympic championship isn’t that he won an Olympic gold medal, but that he helped pull American Greco-Roman wrestling from the deepest levels of worldwide irrelevancy into the sunshine. Before Blatnick and company came along in Los Angeles in 1984, the United States had next to nothing to show in terms of international Greco achievement.
As said above, prior to 1984 Olympic games, the US had never won a medal in Greco-Roman at the Olympic games and it had been half a decade since the last American world level medal. Greco at that point was almost the exclusive province of Eastern Block countries and a few Scandinavians. As combat sports go, Greco was every bit as foreign to American athletes as any fey far-eastern martial art.
That all changed in 1984 when the United States won its first four Olympic medals and first two golds. Blatnick’s ascension to the top of the Olympic podium was symbolic of, and concurrent with, America’s ascension to the status of a power in international Greco-Roman wrestling. Before the 1984 Olympics, the United States, as a team, had never placed within the top five at a world championships. In the eighteen world championships held following 1984 (this purposely excludes the disastrous results of the last Olympic cycle), the United States broke the top ten five exactly one third of the time, even winning a team world championship in 2007.
Unfortunately, the absence of the Soviet Union and Cuba (the wrestling power that is Iran was not present either, but at this point they were about as bad at Greco as us, a far cry from the juggernaut they have become in the years since) causes some to devalue Blatnick’s gold medal. While it is true that the field in this Olympic tournament was without some top wrestlers, Blatnick’s path to gold went through wrestlers who would attain the highest possible decorations in non-boycotted championships. Tomas Johansson, the Swede whom Blatnick defeated in the Olympic finals, would go on to win a world championship in 1986, and the Yugoslavian, Revik Memisevic who eventually was awarded silver after Johansson was later disqualified, was a world champion in 1981. Additionally, Victor Dolipshi, the Romanian who won bronze, was a previous Olympic medalist, and the Egyptian, Hassan El-Haddad, who placed fifth in 1984, would place higher at the non-boycotted 1988 games.
The 1984 gold medal match with Johansson.
Another meaningful indicator of Blatnick’s status as a genuine champion is not just the fact that he had to supplant world bronze medalist Bob Walker to make his first Olympic team in 1980, but the almost unbroken string of great American big men who immediately succeeded him: the Koslowski brothers, Matt Ghaffari, Rulon Gardner, and Dremiel Byers.
Fortunately, Blatnick’s contributions to the sport of wrestling did not stop when his competitive career ended. In a sport where many complain about the absence of mainstream attention while few do anything about it, Jeff spent an entire broadcasting career attempting to make wrestling accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the sport. For years, Blatnick was a fixture on seemingly any national broadcast of amateur wrestling. His approach to commenting focused on illuminating a complex and often confusing sport to the uninitiated viewer – a difficult task to say the least, and one which has proven to be utterly impossible for most other analysts.
The best part about Blatnick’s commentary was that it came without the more obnoxious affectations that seem to crop up in the modern sports broadcasting booth. Jeff spoke with a refreshing lack of pretension. He never attempted to be a larger-than-life character, and he never engaged in supercilious, “hard-hitting” sermonizing. The best word to describe his manner is classy. He was never using a broadcast to draw attention to himself, rather he used it to celebrate the sport in front of him. Even the harshest critics of Blatnick’s commentary cannot deny the unadulterated love of wrestling that radiated from his voice. Jeff put the sport before the commentator, something the sports broadcasting industry at large would be better off for emulating more often.
A proper retrospective is not complete without some discussion about legacy. Yes, Blatnick’s legacy is a part of any Olympic gold medal in Greco that is hung from an American’s neck, but I think the most powerful component of what Blatnick left behind was manifested in the last bronze medal he won. Much is made of Blatnick’s heroic return from cancer en route to his Olympic gold. Most bios indicate that a relapse of this same cancer forced Jeff to retire from wrestling in 1986. This is not entirely accurate. The cancer did cause him to leave wrestling, and in the process undergo twenty-eight sessions of chemotherapy in 1985 and 1986.
But neither a second round of cancer nor its harrowing treatment were enough to keep Jeff off the mat for good. In 1987, Blatnick was able to compete at a final World Cup, in Albany, New York. There, in a field that included the greatest Greco wrestler of all time (and maybe the scariest man ever), Alexander Karelin, and in front of a hometown crowd, Jeff Blatnick, the Olympic hero and two time victor over Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, was able to win a bronze medal and retire from the sport on his own terms. This is Jeff Blatnick’s legacy: a tale of dignity, perseverance and determining one’s path solely through the power of will. This is the legacy of a champion in the truest sense.
What Jeff Blatnick accomplished as an athlete should always be celebrated, and ought never be forgotten.