Halfway into the third and final day of Greco-Roman wrestling on Thursday, it looked as if the Americans would leave Beijing without a medal for the first time since 1980 -- until an unlikely savior stepped up.
It wasn't Brad Vering, 2007 world silver medalist. And it wasn't Dremiel Byers, who came in third behind Vering at worlds last year and was the 2002 champion.
Instead, it was Adam Wheeler, the relatively unheralded 26-year-old from Lancaster, Calif., who kept the American medal streak alive with a bronze in the 96-kilogram weight class.
"It was the best moment of my life, wrestling-wise, at least," said Wheeler.
The surprise Olympian, who beat U.S. veteran Justin Ruiz during Trials to earn his spot on the team, defeated Korea's Han Tae-Young with a three-point throw in the second period to end the match.
The American team was populated with young wrestlers and rookies, including 18-year-old Jake Deitchler, whose Olympic debut ended with a loss in the 66-kg repechage bracket. Vering, the only member of the Greco-Roman team with Olympic experience, was ousted in the second round of the 84-kg category, and the 120-kg Byers, a nine-year national team member who finally made the Olympic team this year, was defeated by Sweden's Jalmar Sjoberg in the quarterfinals.
"We didn't have the Olympics anywhere near what we wanted to have, but I think there's a big difference between leaving with zero medals and one," said Steve Fraser, coach of the Greco-Roman national team. "We're just very proud of Adam."
Byers was considered a medal contender and actually outscored Sjoberg in technical points 5-3, but Sjoberg was awarded the win because of rule changes that were baffling to many spectators and unpopular among many teams.
The new rules, implemented by the international wrestling federation (FILA) in 2005, now divide matches into three two-minute periods, with the first wrestler who takes two matches declared the match winner. A tied period, barring deciding factors like penalties and power moves, goes to the wrestler who scored the last point, and that's where it gets really confusing:
Each period is divided into three parts: The first minute consists of wrestling from a standing position, followed by two 30-seconds intervals par terre, where wrestlers take turns assuming the defensive position with hands and knees on the mat. In par terre, if the wrestler in the top (offensive) position fails to score within the 30-second interval, he receives a caution and a point is awarded to his opponent for defending successfully.
Defending tends to be the easier task, particularly among the heavier weight classes, where attempting to throw an opponent who is hugging the mat for dear life tends to be "like trying to pick up a bale of hay -- a squirming bale of hay," says Bill May, wrestling information specialist for the Olympic News Service.
The point of contention for many wrestlers and their coaches is that par terre order is left, literally, to the luck of the draw -- the referee draws from a bag either a red or blue ball, representing the singlet color of the wrestler who will start on offense -- and, more significantly, end the period par terre.
Thirty-four out of the 164 Greco-Roman matches wrestled in these Games came down to defensive ties in the last period, where the only scores were the single points awarded to wrestlers when they were par terre. In those situations, the wrestler who got to finish par terre won the period and therefore the match.
"I'm not satisfied with the rules," said 84-kilo bronze medalist Nazmi Avluca of Turkey. "I don't think the red-ball and blue-ball system is fair for the wrestlers."
Although the Americans were no fans of the lottery either, Fraser was careful to note that ultimate responsibility still lay with the wrestlers.
"It came down to the last point, basically," he said of Byers' final match. "Sure, his opponent was a tough guy but to win you can't leave it down to the draw. You've gotta make your own breaks."
Byers agreed, calling the ball drawing "an occupational hazard."
"I should have been more up on my feet. I missed a couple of key opportunities to score," said Byers, who is an army staff sergeant. "This leaves a bitter taste in me; this is fuel for something bigger. There's something in us that makes us keep going. I don't know if this drive and determination is the American spirit, or me being a soldier."
Byers, who is 33, said he would resume training and planned to try again for the Olympic team in 2012.
Before the match, Wheeler called his bronze medal bout "probably the last match of [his] life." After earning bronze, however, he amended the statement to "the last match today."
In non-American news ...
Five champions from Athens came to Beijing hoping to recapture gold. Of those, only Russia's Khasan Baroev (120 kilograms) managed to reach the finals, bowing to reigning world champion Mijain Lopez of Cuba.
In a week of upsets, however, no one was more upset than Sweden's Ara Abrahamian, who came out on the losing end of a controversial referee decision involving eventual 84-kg gold medalist Andrea Minguzzi of Italy in their semifinal match. Abrahamian stormed through the reporters' mixed zone afterwards, slamming the aluminum barriers.
He was persuaded by friends to return for the evening's bronze medal bout, which he won handily, hours of stewing no doubt fueling his competitive rage.
"I don't care about this medal," Abrahamian said, proving it when he threw his bronze to the center of the mat and stalked out of the medal ceremony. He called his sport's governing body "corrupt" and claimed he had wrestled his last match.
Back in the mixed zone, members of the Swedish Olympic Committee and media sympathized with their compatriot, although no formal complaints have yet been announced. "His victory was taken away by the referee, and FILA failed to do anything about it," said SOC spokesperson Bjorn Folin.
Sjoberg, his teammate, agreed. "I think Ara made the right decision. The judges weren't good to him. They were good to me, however, so I have no bones to pick with them."