The match starts with the wrestlers on their feet, facing each other one meter (3 feet, 3 inches) apart. The main objective in wrestling is to pin the opponent, which is achieved by holding his or her shoulder blades to the mat for about a second. A pin, also known as a "fall," automatically ends the match. A wrestler who does not pin the opponent during a match must accumulate more points - for performing techniques or moves within the rules - to win the bout.
Greco-Roman vs. freestyle
There are two styles of Olympic wrestling, though the rules for both are virtually identical. The chief difference is that in Greco-Roman, a wrestler may not attack his opponent below the waist, nor use his own legs to trip, lift or execute other holds. In freestyle, both the arms and legs are used to execute holds.
The competition will consist of two periods each lasting three minutes. Between the two periods will be a 30-second break. Scoring is cumulative, meaning that points scored in both periods will be added together to determine a winner.
A wrestler can win by technical fall by demonstrating superiority before time runs out. The threshold for a victory by technical fall is a 10-point lead in freestyle wrestling and an 8-point lead in Greco-Roman wrestling. A wrestler can also win the match automatically by pinning their opponent.
This format differs from recent Olympics, which featured a scoring system more comparable to boxing or tennis: three two-minute periods were held, and wrestlers attempted to win individual periods in a "best two out of three" format. With wrestling on the brink of elimination from the Olympic program, the format change for the Rio Games was designed to make the scoring easier for spectators to understand, as well as encourage more consistent offensive attacking. (Under the old system, wrestlers would often back off and play more defensively when leading toward the end of a period.)
Both wrestlers are required to always give an all-out effort. Wrestlers showing less than total effort are considered "passive." This can occur because a wrestler is cautious, prefers to counterattack and is waiting for the opponent to move, is trying to avoid risk and protect a lead, or is tired. One or both wrestlers can be considered passive. Passivity becomes obvious when a wrestler:
- does not attempt or execute any holds.
- is satisfied just to neutralize the opponent's efforts, blocking holds.
- gives the impression of not trying to initiate effective holds.
- intentionally "plays the edge," flees the mat, or pushes the opponent away to avoid wrestling.
- holds the opponent by one or both hands to prevent him or her from wrestling.
- repeatedly fakes head throws; slips off; falls to the mat; lies flat on his or her stomach; locks his or her legs around the opponent's leg.
- in Greco-Roman wrestling, engages in combat with head thrust forward in order to prevent "body-to-body" contact.
If the referee believes a wrestler is being passive, he issues a verbal warning to that wrestler on the first offense. In freestyle wrestling, on the second infraction, the passive wrestler is put on a 30-second "shot clock." If neither wrestler scores at the end of those 30 seconds, then the opponent of the passive wrestler is awarded a point, and the passive wrestler receives a caution. If neither competitor has scored after the first two minutes of the opening period of a freestyle match, the referee is obligated to designate a passive wrestler and place them on the shot clock.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, after the first verbal warning for passivity, the active wrestler can choose whether to continue the match in a standing or par terre (ground) position. For any subsequent passivity violations, there will also be a point awarded to the active wrestler. When a Greco-Roman match ends in a scoreless tie, the referee will award the victory to whichever wrestler they considered to be the most active last.
Cautions are penalties that can be issued to wrestlers for a number of infractions that include:
- fleeing the mat
- fleeing a hold
- refusal to start
- illegal or brutal hold (detailed further below)
Cautions can be accompanied by the awarding of points to the opponent, with the number of points depending on the severity. If a wrestler receives three cautions during a match, that wrestler will be disqualified. If a match ends in a tie, cautions are one of the criteria used in tiebreaking. A caution can be challenged by request.
Punishing or brutal holds are illegal. They include choking; twisting of fingers, arms, toes or feet; striking the opponent with an elbow or knee; butting with the head; pulling hair; pinching; and/or biting. Certain holds on the head, arms or legs are prohibited because of extreme danger to the vertebrae and joints. These include headlocks without an arm included to bring an opponent's arm behind his or her back at an acute angle (hammerlock), a move that applies severe pressure to the neck or spine. The most dangerous hold is driving the opponent head first into the mat from standing position.
In freestyle, a leg scissors with the feet crossed may not be applied to the head, neck or body, although it may be used on an opponent's arm or leg. In Greco-Roman, any use of the legs -- on offense or defense -- is illegal. The most common violations in Greco-Roman are defensive use of the legs to stop a lift or throws, and offensive use of the legs to help a lift or throw.
A wrestler is not allowed to gain an advantage from use of an illegal hold. If the illegal hold helps him or her score, the whole action is erased and he or she is penalized. If the illegal hold fails to keep the opponent from scoring, the opponent gets the points he or she earned, plus a one-point penalty. There are no negative points assessed in wrestling, so any illegal actions performed by a competitor result in a point being awarded to the opponent.
Coaches are allowed to challenge decisions made by the referees. The coach will throw a soft object onto the mat to get the attention of the mat chairman, who will stop the match once the action becomes neutral (neither wrestler actively has a competitive advantage). If the wrestler disagrees with his coach's decision to challenge, he can cancel the challenge, and the match will resume.
Challenges can be issued in situations where the coach believes either that the opposing wrestler was incorrectly awarded points, or that the referee incorrectly failed to award points to the coach's wrestler. Pins and penalties given for passive wrestling can not be challenged though. Challenges must be made within five seconds of the score (or lack of) in question.
Challenges are limited to one per wrestler per match. If the wrestler wins the challenge, the score will be adjusted, and that wrestler will retain his challenge for future use; if the wrestler loses the challenge, his competitor will receive one technical point.
Reviews will be made by the Jury of Appeal, which watches video replays in order to render a decision. If the Jury of Appeal renders a unanimous decision, that decision is final; if members of the Jury of Appeal disagree, then another review will be requested, after which majority decision will prevail.