Will politics, lack of modernization lead to wrestling's Olympic exit?
Grapple with this: Wrestling, one of the most respected sports on the Olympic program, may now be off the program entirely. Rich Bender executive director of USA Wrestling, figured his sport was secure until this morning. "From the ancient Olympics to the modern Olympics," Bender told SI, "in every corner of the globe, nobody could dispute wrestling's importance to the Olympic movement." That all changed at 5:22 a.m. Mountain Time when Colorado-based Bender read an email from a longtime volunteer telling him the news. The IOC's executive board voted Tuesday morning to recommend wrestling for exclusion from the 2020 Games, sparing other sports that seemed more likely targets. In order to keep the Games relevant and fresh in a changing sporting landscape, the board is now obligated to nominate one sport for consideration during each Olympic cycle, thereby making way for new sports and compelling some older ones to modernize. "When I heard the news," Bender recalls, "I thought it was a dream. If you think about this logically, there is no way wrestling is even in this discussion."
Modern pentathlon, a sport with only moderate international following, is always a target for exclusion. But that sport has fought hard in the last few years to reinvent itself, first switching from a five-event-in-four-day competition to a single-day meet and now being reconfigured so its events can be held in a single stadium with one seat for spectators and lower expenses for organizers. Though often hit with judging and organizational scandals, taekwondo has especially strong backers in Asia. Those two sports and field hockey, an oft-maligned and under-publicized team sport, were the ones reportedly left in a final round of voting among executive board members for sport exclusion.
Wrestling is among the Games' oldest sports. It was included in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 with a single open class for Greco-Roman wrestlers. It was dropped from the Games four years later in Paris, but has been a staple ever since, with women's events being added in 2004. To date, 118 countries have entered wrestlers in Olympic competition -- 71 were in London last summer -- and athletes from 54 nations have won medals. But the sport's origins go back far beyond the modern Games. The first true great champion of the sport was Milo of Croton, who won five titles in the ancient Olympics in the sixth century B.C. and might have won more had he not lost his final bout to a pack of hungry wolves who devoured him.
Some other factors may be in play here, especially given the structure of the IOC and the allegiances that it creates. Several IOC members have ties to international sport governing bodies and to cities bidding for rights to host Olympic Games. Consider the three cities bidding for the rights to host the Olympics in 2020: Madrid, Istanbul and Tokyo. Wrestling is one of the most popular Olympic sports in Turkey. One knock against the Turkish bid is that even though the national Olympic committee has vied repeatedly for the Games, and shown the willingness to finance bids, the country's sporting passions are limited to a narrower group of core sports than in the other cities. The loss of wrestling would be a blow to the Turks. Japan is the leading nation in women's wrestling, with strong contenders today, and presumably eight years down the road, in all four classes. The loss of wrestling would be a blow to the Japanese. But of the nations with bid cities in the mix for 2020, Spain is the most politically powerful of the three. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president, is now an IOC executive board member. Wrestling is not as popular in Spain as it is in the other two countries. Samaranch is also a vice president of modern pentathlon's international committee and one of 15 IOC executive board members who voted on the sport program. No other EB member has direct ties to wrestling, modern pentathlon, taekwondo or field hockey.
Granted, wrestling's fate hasn't been sealed. The other 25 sports will be considered core sports, safely included on the IOC's program for 2020. Wrestling will then be one of eight sports that must make presentations to the IOC's executive board at a meeting in May in St. Petersburg. The full IOC membership will make its final decision at the next IOC session in Buenos Aires in September. The other sport candidates in the group are karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, wushu and the combination of baseball and softball, which are attempting to re-enter the Games under a joint umbrella. Golf and rugby -- the seven-man version -- have already been added to the list of sports for the Rio Games in 2016.
Officially, FILA, wrestling's international governing body, issued the following statement: "FILA was greatly astonished by today's recommendation of the IOC executive board not to maintain wrestling among the 25 core sports for the 2020 Olympic Games. FILA will take all necessary measures to convince the IOC Executive Board and IOC members of the aberration of such decision against one of the founding sports of the ancient and modern Olympic Games." Though the committee declined to make its members available for comment, one FILA member told SI, "We had not considered this possibility. Whispers, we heard nothing. I think it's politics, because you cannot justify it on the facts. Other sports are not so interesting for the public and then you look at cycling, which is so stained and could go out for maybe a few years for a cleaning. But, no, they choose wrestling, which is a foundation sport. It smells." FILA members will meet in Phuket, Thailand later this week to formulate a response and a plan for the presentation in St. Petersburg.
"It's not over yet," Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs tweeted from Azerbaijan, where he is training for a tournament. "We will keep fighting to save the sport we love. Don't stop dreaming and don't stop believing." Burroughs wasn't alone. Even the wrestlers weren't alone. Swimmer Tyler McGill, Triathlete Hunter Kemper, Hurdler/bobsledder Lolo Jones all tweeted support for one of the most respected Olympic sports.
There may be two messages here for a sport like wrestling. First, even revered sports need to know how to play the political game. It is sad, but true. Wrestling officials concede privately that it is something they do not do very well, preferring, with good reason, to trumpet the purity and integrity of their sport. At the same time, they may need to heed calls for the type of modernization that some in the sport find offensive. One international official acknowledged that there has been too little movement on the part of Greco-Roman wrestling to increase scoring or become more viewer-friendly. Such suggestions have engendered a strong pushback from the sport's purists. A handful of sports (e.g. track and field, swimming, gymnastics) generate large revenue not only at the Games, but also during world championships and invitational meets. They have sizable TV contracts and recognized international stars (e.g. basketball and soccer). For the others, it will be an ever-increasing game of being relevant and current, perhaps at the expense of the past that created and nurtured them. Failure to modernize and play politics can leave even tenured sports open to wind and whim.
"To athletes around the world, wrestling is at the heart of the Olympics," says Bender. "Unfortunately 15 people with a secret ballot in a closed room in Switzerland felt differently."