The International Olympic Committee voted wrestling out of the Summer Games. Liam Day says it’s a travesty.
My favorite reaction to the news that the International Olympic Committee has voted to remove wrestling from the slate of events included in the Summer Olympic Games has been, “What the f**k?”
Wrestling, which has been part of the modern Olympic Games since their inception in Athens in 1896, a contest invented some 15,000 years ago (at least according to cave drawings in France) and part of the ancient Greek games upon which the ones that enthrall us every four years are based, will not be guaranteed to be among the 26 events, which is the cap imposed by Olympic rules, come 2020. Wrestling will remain an event in Rio in 2016 and may still be an event by the time the 2020 Games roll around, but it will have to be submitted for consideration along with 7 other sports whose adherents seek their inclusion: Karate, Baseball/Softball, Squash, Wakeboarding, Wushu, Sport Climbing, and Roller Sports. (I have to admit to having no idea what at least half of these sports are.)
The vote was done by a secret ballot, the 15-member panel choosing from among a list of possible sports to remove that included field hockey, taekwondo, and modern pentathlon, the sport most observers assumed would be the unlucky winner. According to the New York Times, the criteria the panel was to consider included television ratings, ticket sales, worldwide participation rates, and the individual sports’ anti-doping policies. Of course, this being the IOC, how objective the panel’s members were is a legitimate question. The organization’s track record (see here, here, here and here) can’t exactly assure us that the vote was entirely on the up and up.
I suspect, however, that the data the panel reviewed before voting didn’t help. As I discussed last year in the run-up to the London games, wrestling’s participation at the college level here in the United States has declined precipitously in the last 30 years, the number of Division 1 scholarship programs declining by nearly half during that time.
I also wonder about the international wrestling federation’s (FILA) anti-doping policies. As Bill Simmons pointed out on Grantland two weeks ago, in an article JP Pelosi reacted to on The Good Men Project, the Olympics have just about the strictest drug testing regimen in the world. (Though apparently not so strict that it caught Lance Armstrong. That may be a story for investigation another day.)
I also believe that the process the IOC undertakes every four years to review the events included in the Games and to add or remove events as it sees fit is precisely what it should do. The Games shouldn’t remain static, including only those events it always has, and barring any new events. They should evolve as the world does.
That being said, however, tradition is an important part of the Olympics and, as they evolve, the IOC also needs to try and maintain that tradition, which goes back not just to 1896, but to the original games of ancient Greece. To that end, wrestling simply cannot be excluded.
To correct this mistake, then, I offer a solution that I’m stealing from a source I can’t now remember. (In fact, if someone does know the origin of this idea, please leave a comment to that effect so that I can go back and properly cite it.) The idea is this: the events the Olympics include should only be those for which they are the sport’s pinnacle of competition. So, for example, wrestling would remain an event because to win a gold medal is the highest honor a wrestler can achieve. Conversely, tennis, as much as I like it, would be removed from the Games because, as big a deal as it was for Andy Murray to win the gold last summer on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, it will pale by comparison when he actually wins Wimbledon.
As I said, if FILA is willing to fight for the sport’s inclusion, and perhaps throw some cash and gifts around, wrestling could wind up right back in the Games. One can only hope so. Otherwise, the sport and memories of matches like Rulon Gardner’s upset of the unbeatable Aleksandr Karelin, one of the great moments in Olympic history, will be as dead as a Greek poet.