On Tuesday morning in Carioca Arena 2, Georgian wrestler Shmagi Bolkvadze was getting creamed. Serbian Davor Stefanek held a 4-0 lead against Bolkvadze, who was left squirming on the mat. Stefanek almost had the match won and his spot in the 66 kg Men's Greco-Roman Wrestling gold medal match secured. Then referee called a foul on Bolkvadze, which immediately prompted Bolkvadze's coach to launch a stuffed version of Rio 2016's mascot, Vinicius, onto the mat. The deliriously happy stuffed animal sailed through the air, limbs akimbo, until it bounced off the mat and rested next to the two wrestlers. The referee lightly kicked Vinicius back to the coach, who, still irate, threw it back at the referee.
For the Rio Summer Olympics, Vinicius is the wrestling equivalent of the NFL's red challenge flag, although coaches don't keep it in their socks. Two versions of Vinicius—one with a small red shirt, the other blue—rest on the mat next to their respective coaches. If the coach wants to challenge a referee's decision, they throw Vinicius onto the center of the mat, creating the bizarre and hilarious spectacle of a very irate man throwing a stuffed animal.
Essentially, coaches can pretty much challenge any refereeing decision. Coaches are limited to one challenge per match, although they get that challenge back if the decision is ruled in their favor. If they lose the challenge, the opposing wrestler is awarded a point. After a challenge, referees huddle around a monitor and view a replay of the move. Referees make a decision fairly quickly, usually in less than 30 seconds.
Unlike the NFL, there is no standard object that must be used for a challenge signal in wrestling. According to the sport's governing body, United World Wrestling, a challenge must be requested by "throwing a soft object on the mat." There is no clear specification of what that soft object must be. Colloquially, the sport most often refers to the object as a "challenge brick," because the most common objects are often soft, brick-sized pieces of foam.
Not everyone likes the foam brick, though, because they're too light to make for a good projectile. The trick is to find an object that works as a projectile but doesn't work too well as a projectile, allowing coaches to live out every sports fan's lifelong dream. It is up to the tournament organizers to pick something in the sweet middle ground. As it happens, stuffed animals are a common choice.
Jason Bryant, the in-house announcer for Rio's Olympic wrestling who also does NCAA matches back in the United States, says the challenge brick evolution "has been kinda funny to watch." When he coached a friend at the World Team Trials in 2009, the challenge brick was a swimming pool noodle.
Both Bryant and USA Wrestling's director of communications Gary Abbott pinpoint the same moment as when the challenge brick became a goofy object: the 2012 Greco Olympic Qualifier in Arlington, Texas. Tournament organizers gave each coach a pillow pet; a Texas Rangers one for the red team, and a Dallas Cowboys one for the blue team. Bryant recalled seeing "Army coaches holding a pillow pet asking, 'Am I going to throw this thing?'"
Two years later, during the World Championships in Finland, the organizers had little stuffed Angry Birds as challenge bricks, a nod to one of Finland's most popular cultural exports. Mike Maliconico, Associate Producer at FloWrestling.com, remembers seeing Angry Birds at tournaments stateside not long after, along with "tube socks stuffed with other tube socks." But, he does not remember every challenge brick he's ever used because, as he put it, "I'm usually so fucking jacked on adrenaline at the events that the challenge mascot is just a silly side note."
Bryant, a self-described traditionalist, doesn't have a problem with goofy challenge bricks as long as it has some cultural relevance to the tournament's location. He doesn't see the point of, say, using Angry Birds in stateside competitions. "It needs to make sense," he says. But it doesn't bother him that the challenge brick for the 2016 Olympics is the same object he got his four year old daughter as a souvenir.
However, Bryant does find it a little surprising that such a highly controlled and serious event like the Olympics would inject a silly creature into the center of its proceedings. "We hear the word 'protocol' all the time," Bryant said of his role as in-house commentator. "I'm still wondering where Vinicius fits in the protocol."
Ultimately, he thinks it doesn't matter what the object is. "You could put a pink flamingo in the corner. If the coaches know it's a brick then they're gonna chuck it."
Maliconico, who has coached state and national champions, isn't necessarily against Vinicius and his cohort of anthropomorphic challenge bricks, but he also doesn't feel like they belong to the Olympic moment.
"This is our fucking Super Bowl. No, better, yet, our World Cup. It only happens once every four years. The fate of one of my athletes who has been training for this specific moment for four years hangs in the balance of a referee's error. And I have a stuffed animal in my hands."
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