Wrestling set for final pitch for survival to IOC
Wrestling's seven-month stay in Olympic purgatory is almost complete.
The ancient sport will either emerge from its ultimate crisis stronger than ever - or be forced to adjust to the cruel reality of life outside of the Olympic program.
Wrestling, squash and a combined bid from baseball-softball will make their final pleas to the full IOC assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which will vote on which sport gets the last spot in the 2020 Olympics on Sept. 8.
The pitch the IOC will hear from FILA, the sport's international governing body, is that wrestling is a pure, global, evolving and all-inclusive sport that's long been the essence of the Olympic movement.
Now facing the possible end of Olympic wrestling, officials are optimistic they've done all they can to ensure its survival.
"We have done everything possible in this time frame,'' FILA president Nenad Lalovic said. "We were limited by the time between, (but we did) everything possible, and implemented it.''
Wrestling certainly had a lot of work to do - and very little time to do it - after the IOC board's surprising recommendation in February that it be cut from the Olympics.
Issues including leadership, gender equity and a product that many viewed as confusing and unappealing to casual viewers had plagued the sport for years.
FILA responded with quick and sweeping changes in all aspects of the sport.
The organization's first step was to replace Raphael Martinetti as president. Martinetti resigned just days after the IOC's recommendation in favor of Lalovic, and Lalovic immediately went to work improving wrestling's ties to the IOC.
Lalovic believes that FILA's once-strained relationship with the IOC has since improved. In fact, wrestling answered the IOC's request for more gender equity by adding two weight classes to women's freestyle.
The change, which comes at the expense of one weight class in men's freestyle and Greco-Roman, will go into effect for the 2016 Rio Games.
FILA has also allocated more positions for women in its governance, including a vice presidency and a three spots on its bureau.
"They've helped us a lot, in order to make us look better,'' Lalovic said of the IOC.
A more engaged federation and increased gender equity should help wrestling's cause. But rules changes designed to make wrestling easier to understand and more fun to watch could prove to be the difference.
The sport dropped the controversial rule forcing an athlete to pick a ball from a bag to determine overtime positions. The lucky wrestler who was awarded the offensive spot on a blind draw almost always prevailed.
Wrestling also notably switched from a best-of-three periods format to a pair of three, two-minute frames with cumulative scoring, along with points incentives designed to encourage much more active wrestling.
After resisting change for decades, wrestling knew it had to show it can adapt to modern times.
"The rules are better than they were on Feb 12. I think everyone in wrestling agreed that the ball pull ... wasn't something that really fit with the sport. The two, three-minute cumulative scoring and the elimination of the luck of the draw concept has really made the sport,'' USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said. "I think it's also been an opportunity for the sport to galvanize itself around wrestling, and I think that's a good thing.''
Despite what many misconstrued as a death sentence from the IOC, wrestling is considered the favorite to remain in the Olympics.
The rallying cries from the wrestling community and beyond shined as much light to the sport's virtues as any other instance in recent memory.
Wrestling's plight also forced rivals like the United States, Russia and Iran to unite around the "Keep Olympic Wrestling'' cause - which fans kept in the public eye through various social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter.
Wrestling capitalized on its momentum by being the first sport to make it through to the IOC's shortlist for Buenos Aires in a vote in St. Petersburg in late May.
The sport now has one more round to go, this time in front of the IOC's general assembly. Officials are hoping the changes they've enacted are enough to secure the sport's tenuous future.
"We changed the rules ... we changed the constitution,'' Lalovic said. "Our aim is to have one of the best organized federations, and we'll succeed at this whether we succeed in Buenos Aires or not. Because succeeding or not, we'll never stop fighting for our position.''
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