By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
CALEDONIA—Local resident Ed Zinger has loved wrestling ever since he was in the ninth grade. This love of the sport has carried him far in life, right up to this past week where he found himself as the referee of the women’s freestyle 50kg gold medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, which was won by Yui Susaki of Japan.
Zinger first fell in love with the sport thanks to its dynamic nature and challenge: “You need to use strength, speed, balance, as well as skill and tactics to be successful. It was like a dynamic chess game.”
His fascination was nurtured by his former high school coach, Ron Preston, a Sudbury legend credited with founding competitive wrestling in northern Ontario: “He gave up his Olympic dream when he was national senior champion and number one ranked. He got hired to teach in Kirkland Lake and had a young family to support. He needed to choose between his dream or providing for his family. He wisely chose his family.”
When Zinger’s own competitive career ended following major knee surgery and ongoing shoulder issues while wrestling as a student at Lakehead University in 1992, he again looked to Preston for inspiration and found a passion for refereeing.
“I always felt like I wanted to reach the Olympics for him. I couldn’t do it as an athlete, but finally was successful as a referee,” said Zinger.
Zinger also followed in Preston’s footsteps as a teacher. Moving to Hagersville in 1995 with his wife Anna, they both worked as supply teachers locally before Zinger was hired at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the blind in Brantford. Regardless of the school, Zinger maintained his commitment to wrestling by using vacation time to officiate elite tournaments in Austria, Serbia, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Kazakhstan, and more.
With decades of experience and credentials, Zinger has previously officiated three Canadian Olympic qualifiers, eight World Championships, three World Cups, and nine Pan Am Championships. Being in quarantine following his work at an Olympic qualifier in Bulgaria earlier this year, he felt “total elation and relief” when he found his name on the list of chosen referees for the Olympics: “The process for selection began in 2018 and required seven tournaments to earn my selection. There has been a lot of time and money invested in my refereeing career and a lot of sacrifice of family time and events over my entire refereeing career,” he explained, thanking those closest to him for supporting his dream. “It has been a lifelong dream to get to the Olympics so I was overwhelmed for a bit.”
“The Japanese people have been extremely inviting, helpful, and excellent hosts for these Olympic Games. The preparation and execution of the games’ organizers has been incredible,” he described, although as a result of the pandemic, “we can’t see other events or do any sightseeing, so our exposure to the culture of Japan is limited.”
He continued, “The lack of crowds makes it easier to work, but harder to maintain that excitement level a normal tournament would have. The athletes are performing at the highest level possible, so concentration and focus on the smallest of details is critical to ensure a fair match with the correct winner. The level of scrutiny over every call amplifies the importance of every decision made.”
Zinger said that he was required to take two PCR tests for COVID prior to leaving, in addition to a daily test when he was in Japan. All officials were bubbled together in a hotel and advised to limit their interaction with Japanese people due to the low rate of vaccination in the country. Hotel luxuries such as the pool and spa were also forbidden, and Zinger said he was strongly encouraged to stay in his room when not working or eating, describing the 300-metre walk from the hotel to the venue across the street as his only time outside.
Despite the pandemic-mandated restrictions, the experience is one that Zinger will never forget: “The intensity and importance of every match has been incredible. These are the top athletes in the world all trying to reach their full potential and lifelong goals. It has been truly impressive to say the least.”