The news from the mat hasn’t been good for a while now, but this was not a day for gloom or hand-wringing, or to fret about how college wrestling seems to be going the way of dinosaurs and rotary telephones. This was a day to celebrate history and heritage and an eight-inch patch of papyrus that dates back almost 2,000 years – a wrestling coaching manual that is believed to be the oldest sporting instructional document in the world.

It was a day for some of the greatest wrestlers ever – Olympic champions Dan Gable and Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith among them – to gather in a stunning stone building on Amsterdam Ave. called Casa Italiana, on the campus of Columbia, to talk not about big-buck TV deals and gerrymandered conferences but the nobility of a sport that, since antiquity, has been about discipline and dedication and pushing yourself to feats you didn’t think possible.

“To find a coaching manual that dates to 200 A.D. just solidifies how important wrestling is, not just in American culture, but in world culture,” said Kerry McCoy, a two-time Olympian and world silver medalist who grew up on Long Island and now coaches at the University of Maryland. “This is a sport built on core values that we need to keep in the forefront.”

Lee Roy Smith is the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Okla. He was on hand Tuesday to receive a reproduction of the papyrus text for display in the Hall of Fame. The original will remain in Columbia’s Butler Library, where it has been in the rare books/artifacts collection since 1907.

“Commercialism is the way of the day now, and (we all understand) the importance of money,” Smith said. “But there has to be a balance. Today there are so many big negatives that come at us in our sport. It’s great to celebrate something that’s truly authentic and positive.”

The U.S. has won more gold medals in wrestling than any Olympic sport other than track and field and swimming. It has won 125 Olympic wrestling medals in all and produced spectacular some five-ring theatre along the way: Rulon Gardner‘s victory over the unbeatable man, Alexandre Karelin, in Sydney in 2000; Jeff Blatnick‘s triumph over cancer and Sweden‘s Thomas Johansson in 1984; and Gable marauding his way to gold in Munich in 1972 without losing so much as a single point.

-Wayne Coffey (New York Daily News)