Joe Rau went into the 2021 Olympic Trials as the number one-seed, earning a draw to the championship round. If Rau defeated the Trials tournament winner in a best-of-three-match series, he’d win his second Olympic Team Trials tournament and fourth World Team spot since 2014.
After examining his tumultuous career last fall, it seemed that everything had fallen in Rau’s favor. Alan Vera, the Cuban transplant who defeated Rau in the 2020 US National Championship, had been upset by John Stefanowicz of the US Marine team.
Rau faced off with Stefanowicz in the first match, immediately secured a front headlock, popped his hips, and scored four points. Rau set his feet, ready to hit a second front headlock throw, but the referee whistled the action dead. The official—who will not be named in this article—thought that Rau’s front headlock was just too tight. Had Rau hit the throw, four points would have been awarded, and he would have won the match 8–0 via technical decision, Greco-Roman Wrestling’s equivalent to the slaughter rule. However, the referee’s action stopped that from happening.
The whole match can be found on Peacock and NBC pic.twitter.com/S995ZgAE65
— Bryan Medlin (@MedlinBryan) April 16, 2021
Later in the first period, Rau secured another front headlock. Stefanowicz pushed himself toward the out-of-bounds line, trying not to get thrown again. If Stefanowicz stepped out of bounds, Rau should be reward at least one point, if not two, for a technical rule violation. That isn’t what happened. Instead, as Rau set his feet to throw Stefanowicz for the third time in the match but the official again blew the whistle, stopping the action. The referee awarded Stefanowicz two penalty points and put Rau in the down position.
Greco-Roman wrestling is a sport of inches. Points are typically hard to come by. Forcing a wrestler into the down position often results in the top man turning his opponent’s back to the mat. Stefanowicz exposed Rau’s back twice with a ferocious gut wrench, putting him up 6–4. Of course, before the par terre (top-bottom) position started, the referee physically grabbed Rau and said, “You’re so fucking lucky I don’t disqualify you right now.”
At what point is it OK for an official to lay his hands on an athlete that is standing up and say to them “you are so (blanking) lucky”?… asking for a friend. pic.twitter.com/AWobDOjmmg
— Bryan Medlin (@MedlinBryan) April 18, 2021
Apparently, the referee didn’t appreciate Joe Rau trying to score points in a wrestling match. Let’s ignore for a moment that the referee’s judgment stoppage, which twice cost Rau the match. Let’s forget the misappropriation of the rules putting Rau into par terre in the first place. A referee isn’t supposed to put his hands on an athlete during a match, let alone swear at a competitor who hasn’t broken any rules.
Rau would score an additional point for inaction, closing the gap to 6–5, in Stefanowicz’s favor. As seconds ticked away, Rau pushed forward with an underhook, pressuring Stefanowicz. Again, the referee blew the action dead with six seconds left in the match. There was blood on the mat. The match ended with a score of 6–5. Stefanowicz wons the first contest.
The second match was all Stefanowicz, with the Marine winning 2–1 and securing an Olympic bid. Rau ceremonially took off his shoes in the center of the mat. This act usually signifies a wrestler retiring before the crowd. This wasn’t something Rau planned to do. Here, Rau’s shoe removal was a protest against USA Wrestling.
Rau’s coach, Bryan Medlin of the Illinois Regional Training Center, made a formal request before the first match to switch the officials. Medlin questioned the optics of having a US Marine affiliated official referring a match involving a current US Marine competitor. Making matters even stickier is that the US Marine Corps program was in danger of being cut if the team didn’t perform at Trials. Today, wrestlers now face the state of dying wrestling programs far too often. For those reasons alone, USA Wrestling should have reassigned the official.
His actions during the first match even drew criticism from NBC Sports commentator Nick Garone. He wasn’t alone. Many in the amateur wrestling community expressed their frustration with the events that broke the match down. But what could be done?
Medlin told Rau to take a few days off and think about whether he wanted to fight the outcome. Challenging a match result because of rule misappropriation has happened in the past. In 1996, Matt Lindland went to court to fight the decision of his Olympic Trials finale against Keith Sieracki. After appealing the result, an arbitrator ordered the match re-wrestled after reviewing the video and finding that Sieracki had used his legs to trip Lindland, a clear rule violation. The US Olympic Committee appealed the decision, but the appellate court favored Lindland, and the match was re-wrestled. Lindland defeated Sieracki and took the silver medal in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Rau’s coaches believe he has a case and has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $20,000 necessary to set the arbitration hearing. As of this writing, Rau’s campaign has already raised $19,000. If the arbitrator finds in Rau’s favor, a rematch would be ordered.