On Feb. 12, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted to recommend wrestling for exclusion from the program of Olympic sports starting in 2020, leaving an uncertain future for one of the oldest, most respected sports at the Games. The sport's international governing body, FILA, which boasts 177 member teams, changed presidents shortly after the announcement, promoting one of its board members, member Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, to be the new head of the organization.
Lalovic and FILA now face the difficult task of convincing the IOC to keep the sport in the Games -- first when the executive board narrows its list of prospective sport candidates (wrestling, squash, karate, sport climbing, roller sports, wushu, wakeboarding and a combined bid of baseball and softball) in St. Petersburg later this month and then when the IOC's general membership votes to fill out its 2020 program at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires in September.
The week, the U.S. is hosting a wrestling exhibition called Rumble on the Rails in New York's iconic Grand Central Station with wrestlers from Iran and Russia, two traditional wrestling powerhouses. Lalovic spoke to Sports Illustrated about the IOC decision and the changes wrestling plans to make in order to win back its place on the Olympic program.
Sports Illustrated: Tell me where you were and how you heard the news about wrestling being in this situation.
Nenad Lalovic: I was in my office and I took a telephone call from a friend living in Switzerland, who just heard on the radio -- I checked on the Internet and I was astonished. When we heard the news, the FILA members were not even aware that there was a meeting in Lausanne [at the IOC headquarters]. The other sports had people there in the office, but nobody from FILA had information that such a vote was taking place. Never before was the president or secretary general telling us this. We asked many times if there would be some action about the Olympic program, but he said you don't have to worry.
SI: The FILA office is not that far from the IOC in Lausanne. It's almost unthinkable that something like this could take place without FILA's knowledge.
NL: Our president [Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland] was in Azerbaijan at that moment, because they had a competition there. Nobody from FILA was appointed to attend the session. All the sports were there, I was told, except us. We were often not present for many sessions, because we had very bad communication with the IOC. We are not [soccer]. We are not basketball. We are totally invisible to the IOC. For wrestlers, the only goal is to win the Olympics. They do not have expensive transfers. They cannot earn money like other sports. And we betrayed them. Everyone at FILA is more or less responsible. That's why I couldn't refuse what was proposed to me that I become the president.
SI: You had a chance to meet with IOC President Rogge. Can you tell me about that meeting?
NL: It was very friendly, diplomatic. It was just explained to me that now we are in the group that are fighting to become included in the Olympics, and we have to fight for that position. We have been given a second chance, and we will jump on it. There are plenty of chances to improve our sport and fulfill the requirements of the IOC. It was told the conditions are the same for everybody, for us and seven other sports. We have to make the new questionnaire for them.
SI: For a wrestling fan, how will a wrestling tournament look different if you implement your planned changes?
NL: Even now we have different competitions from now to the Olympics. For Rio, it will be the same: four [women's freestyle classes], seven [men's freestyle classes] and seven [men's Greco-Roman classes]. Then we propose six of each for 2020 and 2024. We have a requirement of equity for men and women and we have to respect that, so I hope it will be accepted. Also there will be 16 wrestling categories, not 17, 18, 19., and [we will award] one bronze medal, instead of two. The IOC has a problem with the number of athletes and number of medals and especially the number of officials. At the last Games we were there with 60 referees, while 30 is quite enough. So we have made [this proposal] to the IOC. Also, we could hold our tournament longer -- instead of five or six days, maybe ten days.
SI: When fans come to the world championships, tell me about the technical details for the clinch, for going off the mat, and so on. What will change?
NL: We are making the rules so the better wrestler will win. There will be no draws anymore.
SI: So no morepicking the ball out of the bag?
NL: No more. The wrestlers have to decide the match, not the referee -- the referees have much less space to decide the match. Even with existing rules, we succeeded in the most recent tournaments to have 30 percent more points in Greco-Roman. Same rules, different approach of the committee. If there is a passive wrestler, he loses one point. And what happened before? He could win the first bout by 1-0, lose the second by 6-0 and the third win by draw he wins a clinch. Spectators don't like the clinch very much. It's maybe good for tennis and volleyball, but not wrestling. I believe there will be no bouts -- one match, five minutes. We want the rules to be understandable for everybody. Our champions who won their matches ten years ago don't know what's going on now. We can't tolerate this.
SI: So give me an example of an in-match situation that is being handled better now.
NL: We had a president who had a telephone line to the referees. They were always under pressure because he was phoning in to them. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine Sepp Blatter [soccer's president of FIFA] phoning to say that play was offsides? I believe the IOC started to be very attentive to us after the scandal in 2008 when the Swedish wrestler did not want to receive his medal.
SI: Wrestling is a very traditional sport. Is it possible to maintain that tradition when the mandate from the IOC for all sports in the Olympic movement is to modernize?
NL: Yes, because we also have to follow the requirements of the media. People were boxing differently a hundred years ago, and they changed that. We haven't changed anything, we just made the rules more complicated. If you bring somebody off the street who has never seen wrestling, he should be able to see who the better wrestler is.
SI: Another suggestion is the changing of the singlet.
NL: I don't know if it will be accepted, but I would like to make a distinction for Greco-Roman wrestlers, so with that style, the wrestlers would have long trousers but no shirt, so it can stand out. You have to make a visual difference. Sometimes spectators at the Olympics are confused. Sometimes you have mat beside mat, and yet something different is happening. The visual effect is very important.
SI: Many sports have been successful with social media in popularizing their sports.
NL: I do not see the direct connection for practicing the sport. It may be interesting for the spectators, since it's much easier to push a button and say like or don't like, but it doesn't help young people to practice wrestling. The best publicity is to have a champion. I am from Serbia and look at what has happened in my country in tennis. Twenty years ago, what did we have? A few players. Now, we have champions and we have so many players. If we had a champion wrestler, the affect would be so much better for the sport in Serbia. When we became successful in basketball, suddenly all the boys in the parks were fighting to play basketball.
SI: Here we have this competition with the U.S., Russia and Iran, traditional practitioners of wrestling. Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?
NL: I think it's Africa. In Dakar we had 60,000 people turn out for a wrestling match. For some people who count these things, they count the number of licenses sold to say how many practice the sport. But who counts the licenses in Africa, in Iran, in Georgia? They wrestle all day long. And for some African countries, they have not as much financial resources. But they have medals in athletics and they have great tradition. It can happen in wrestling.
SI: Was it a mistake when some athletes decided to send their medals back to the IOC in protest?
NL: Yes, it happened with three cases. I spoke to those people, and I wrote letters to their federations. This is counter-productive for us, but I can understand why they're upset. To have a gold medal, how many hectoliters of sweat must you have?
SI: How would FILA's budget be affected if you were out, even for one Olympics?
NL: For one, it won't be a catastrophe, but any more would be very problematic. Much of the money comes from the IOC. I don't care as much about the FILA budget; I care more about every individual federation. If we are out of the Olympics, for every federation, the budget would be divided five or ten times. I made this calculation; wrestling would lose at least 100 million euros.
SI: Will we see more wrestling events such as this in a non-traditional location such as Grand Central Station in order to gain interest?
NL: Why not? You could make it in an old Roman arena. We have the gods of the arena. We have Spartacus. Why not? You remember the concept of Pink Floyd at an empty arena. Without spectators, they were alone at the stage, but the film of the event was shown everywhere. It was much more effective than a normal venue with spectators. We will consider to do what we can.