Jake Herbert is not happy to just be there

LONDON – When Greek artists portrayed wrestling on red and black figure vases, when it became part of the first ancient Olympics, it was the most elemental of sports.

"Rub some grease on your body so you can slip from his false charges," goes the rough translation from "The Knights," a 5th century satire by Aristophanes. "Excellent advice — spoken like a wrestling master," comes the reply.

Even then, it seems, the sport had elements of deviousness.

But in those old, old days, all it took to win a wrestling match was to throw the opponent to the ground three times. Would that it were so simple now. Like so many Olympic sports, subjective judging makes wrestling a much more complicated thing to master, for both the athletes and the spectators in the arena.

So Jake Herbert was left to wonder how he wound up on the wrong end of the score twice in three matches Saturday, his hopes for an Olympic medal in the 185-pound class gone for reasons he could not understand. The most accomplished wrestler in Northwestern history, the world silver medalist in 2009, left the ExCeL Centre both disappointed and convinced the flag on his chest played into the defeats.

"Some people are going to be in the refs' favor, and some people aren't," Herbert said. "Unfortunately, I'm wearing United States of America, and it's the greatest country in the world, and these guys are all mad about that, so they are going to prove it in some other ways."

Unless there is a pin, a match is decided by who wins two of the three two-minute rounds. Herbert lost the first round in his quarterfinal against eventual gold medalist Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan 3-1. In the second round, Herbert made a sequence of moves he and his coach, Sean Bormet, thought would have given him a 3-2 lead.

Instead, the referee made the score 6-0 Sharifov. That ended the round and the match, under a form of mercy rule that stops the bout when one wrestler has a six-point lead.

"It doesn't make sense," Bormet said.

Herbert moved into the losers bracket, needing a win overTurkey'sIbrahim Bolukbasi to move into the bronze medal match. They were tied at one round apiece when the ref gave Bolukbasi the points to reverse a 3-2 deficit and win the final round 5-4. They were points Herbert thought he deserved.

"That's how the sport is," Herbert said. "It's unfortunate it comes down to that. I wish they could find a more fair way to do it."

The international wrestling federation seems determined to trick up the tournament. Its random draw put three world champions in a much stronger lower half of the 19-wrestler bracket at 185 pounds, and two were matched against each other in what amounted to a preliminary round. That would be like having Djokovic play Federer in a Wimbledon qualifier.

But the bottom line, Herbert did admit, was his failure to wrestle better.

"I have got take it out of the ref's hands," he said.

At 27, needing surgery to repair a left shoulder injury he said played no part in his performance, Herbert vowed to press onward, although he would not commit to trying for another Olympics after leaving this one with an empty feeling.

"This was my biggest fear, coming here and just being a participant," he said. "That's all I am right now, and it's heartbreaking.

"I could have won this. There was no reason why I should have walked away without a medal."

A teammate, Coleman Scott, won bronze at 132 pounds Saturday. That gave the United States three wrestling medals (two bronze and a gold), all in freestyle, matching the output of four years ago.

Several dozen Scott fans in ExCeL Centre wore T-shirts trumpeting their allegiance. The Herbert group waved yellow "terrible towels," signaling their ties to the wrestler's roots in Pittsburgh.

"I'm just sorry I let them all down," Herbert said. "I know they will say I didn't, but I wanted to come out of here with hardware and not leaving with it sucks."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter@olyphil
CHICAGO

More