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

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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.

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen make for contrasting favorites at U.S. Championships

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen
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Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen trained on the same ice for the last three years. They enter this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City as favorites, but took different routes to arrive there.

Wagner, 25, seeks her fourth national title, following the worst Grand Prix result of her 10-year career.

Still, Wagner is the 2016 World Championships silver medalist, which carries the most weight of all with the PyeongChang Olympics coming in 13 months.

Wagner, the most accomplished U.S. women’s singles skater in a decade, can become the oldest U.S. women’s singles champion in 90 years.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said last week. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

Chen, 17, is an even bigger favorite in the men’s field. The Salt Lake City native is already one of the most accomplished young skaters in U.S. history, taking two novice and two junior national titles.

In this his first senior international season, Chen had the best fall series of a U.S. man since Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Chen’s autumn culminated with a silver medal at December’s Grand Prix Final, beating the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate.

This week, Chen can become the youngest U.S. men’s singles champion in 51 years. He would do it one year after taking bronze and suffering a hip injury later that day that required season-ending surgery.

“I never thought that I would get there that fast,” Chen said.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships broadcast schedule

Chen was already working with Armenian coach Rafael Arutyunyan in Los Angeles when Wagner joined the training group in the middle of 2013.

Chen was barely 14 years old at the time, but Wagner, by then already a two-time U.S. champion, had learned about him back in 2010.

Wagner saw Chen win the U.S. Championships novice division at age 10, beating skaters six and seven years older than him, including her younger brother, Austin.

“And my brother retired after that year because of Nathan Chen,” Wagner said with a hint of humor.

Under Arutyunyan, a noted jumping technician, Wagner developed into the top consistent challenger to the dominant Russians.

She endured failure — finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and last-place programs at the Grand Prix Final. She experienced success — national and international feats not done by an American since Michelle Kwan.

Most of the U.S. skaters whom Wagner came up with have retired. Her closest recent domestic rivals — Olympic teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds — struggled with poor performances and injury, respectively, in the last year.

If Wagner prevails as she should in Kansas City, the next step is returning to the podium at the world championships in two months in Helsinki, where three Russians, three Japanese and a Canadian will try to keep her off of it. A second straight world medal would make Wagner the best U.S. hope for an Olympic women’s singles medal since 2006.

“The biggest thing about her is her mental toughness,” Chen said of Wagner, “especially when she goes to competitions and zones in on what she wants to do and comes out with the result she wants.”

MORE: Gracie Gold makes desperate move after rock bottom

Mental toughness is something Chen hopes to develop with experience. He already owns the physical tools, most notably an arsenal of quadruple jumps.

Chen, whose adorable 2010 U.S. Championships exhibition at age 10 aired on NBC, is now electrifying. He attempts six quads combined in two programs.

At his last event, the Grand Prix Final in December, Chen recorded the highest free skate score, bettering Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who both were off their game. He finished second overall behind Hanyu, becoming the second-youngest men’s medalist in the event’s 22-year history.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski, who took 1998 Olympic gold at age 15, has, like Wagner, known about Chen since 2010. Lipinski was in Spokane, Wash., for those U.S. Championships seven years ago.

“I remember thinking, oh boy, this kid is so talented, but not really thinking much of it because he was itty-bitty,” Lipinski said of Chen, who has grown a foot since 2010, to 5 feet, 5 inches. “Over time and with growth spurts, everything can change. But that’s why he’s so special. Every year, he improves. You talk about this quad revolution. He’s leading it.”

Chen responded to critics of his artistic skills this season by spending weeks away from Arutyunyan, which the coach supported.

“There is a brain of an adult in this kid’s head,” Arutyunyan said.

Chen went from Los Angeles to work in Michigan under Marina Zoueva, a Russian known for coaching the last two Olympic champion ice dance teams.

NBC Olympic analysts Johnny Weir and Lipinski saw an upgrade in Chen’s artistic components in his fall competitions. If he can challenge the top international skaters artistically, he can beat them with his jumping strength.

“The way that men’s figure skating is progressing, it’s about the quad game and how many you can do,” Wagner said. “It’s starting to look a little bit like ping-pong on the ice. … Going into the next couple of years, the ones that are going to stand out are the ones that do quads and are able to have a full, well-rounded program.”

In Sochi, the U.S. earned no singles figure skating medals for the first time since 1936.

The U.S. hasn’t earned men’s and women’s figure skating medals in the same Olympics since 2002, but it’s certainly looking possible with 13 months until PyeongChang.

“Of course, my goal would be to win the Olympics,” Chen said. “I feel like that’s everyone goal. It’s still a goal for me, but we’ll see how realistic it becomes over the next season.”

MORE: Jason Brown again slowed by injury going into U.S. Championships

Los Angeles 2024 Opening Ceremony plan includes multiple venues

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The Los Angeles 2024 Olympic bid plans to use both the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and a to-be-built NFL stadium for its Opening Ceremony.

The ceremony would start with a portion of the torch relay at the Coliseum, with the flame making its way to the NFL stadium for the rest of the Opening Ceremony, including the cauldron lighting.

The Coliseum “will be filled with 70,000 spectators for a Hollywood-produced program of live entertainment, top musical performances and a live viewing and virtual-reality experience of all ceremony events at the L.A. [NFL] stadium at Hollywood Park,” according to an LA 2024 press release.

The Closing Ceremony will be similar, but in reverse, with the Coliseum hosting the formal portion and the NFL stadium opening for a live viewing experience.

The Coliseum hosted the ceremonies in 1932 and 1984, the previous two times Los Angeles hosted the Olympics.

Opening Ceremonies generally have one venue, though a cauldron has been lit outside the venue, such as at Vancouver 2010 and Rio 2016.

Los Angeles is bidding against Budapest and Paris for the 2024 Olympics.

International Olympic Committee members will vote to choose the 2024 host city on Sept. 13.

MORE: 2024 Olympic bidding news