Who won the first Olympic gold medal for the United States in wrestling? With the internet at our finger-tips this should be a simple question to answer. However, the early Olympic competitions were a far cry from what we see today. Many of the early competitions had few competitors from anywhere outside of the host country. The citizenship status of athletes was not always clear and remains up for debate, for some, to this day. Add to this that freestyle wrestling was still in the process of evolving from its catch as catch-can origins and a seemingly simple question becomes a difficult one to answer.
The place to start looking is the 1904 Olympic Games held in St. Louis. A cursory look at the records from that competition reveals that the United States won all seven weights! That means that one of those seven won the first Olympic gold medal in wrestling for the United States, possibly Robert Curry who wrestled the lightest weight at 47.6 kg. However, if we look deeper at the circumstances surrounding that competition, it isn’t a clear cut case. There were no competitors in the 1904 Olympic wrestling competition from outside of the United States. All those gold medals, and every other medal, were assured to go to Americans before the first match was held.
This may be the technically correct answer to our question, but the spirit of what we’re after may require defeating other nations to claim the title of first American Olympic gold medal winning wrestler. In addition, two of the winning wrestlers from 1904, Charles Ericksen (71.7 kg) and Bernhoff Hansen (7.17 kg+), have been discovered to have still been Norwegian at the time of the competition. That, in addition to being unable to find any mention of what order the final matches were wrestled in, leaves me unfulfilled. Perhaps there is a better answer still waiting to be found.
The obvious next stop on our journey is the 1908 Olympics in London. This competition did feature competitors from more than one country, but only just, especially on the freestyle side. George Mehnert of the United States, who had won gold in St. Louis in 1904, navigated a bracket with 11 wrestlers from Great Britain and one Canadian on his way to his second gold medal. George Dole, the other U.S. champion in London, had 11 opponents, all from Great Britain, to contend with. The argument can be made that Mehnert deserves the honorary title of first American Olympic gold medal winning wrestler, having won twice and likely being first to win in London wrestling at the lightest weight. Considering that Mehnert was also highly regarded for his skill, this is a reasonable conclusion to reach, but there is one additional option.
The final candidate for the title of first American Olympic gold medal winning wrestler is Charles Ackerly (60 kg) who was the only American to win at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Freestyle wrestling was not contested at the 1912 Olympics, and the U.S. did not win a gold medal in Greco until 1984, so when the 1916 Games was canceled, the 1920 Games became the next chance for an American wrestler to shine. Ackerly, who wrestled collegiately for Cornell, defeated athletes from Greece, Switzerland and Great Britain before defeating fellow American Sam Gerson in the gold medal match. Those two had met to decide the 1920 EIWA title with Gerson, who wrestled for Penn, besting Ackerly on that occasion.
Ackerly’s gold medal, if you are dubious of the 1904 and 1908 results, puts an end to our search once and for all. No one after 1920 can claim to be the first. Whether you believe the title belongs to Robert Curry, George Mehnert or Charles Ackerly is largely academic and can never, fully, be decided. The bigger story is the strange and fascinating history of wrestling at the Olympic Games. As we prepare to see another chapter written this summer in Rio, it is important to remember that, while the current system isn’t perfect, it used to be much more chaotic. The presentation, and the presence of just about every top wrestler in the world, has evolved from those early days when wrestling was a side show or an afterthought. We should all be thankful for that.