As outrage over the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling abates, the question turns to how to get it reinstated. Chris Parisi explores the answer.
By now, most have heard the news—devastating in some circles—that wrestling will not be guaranteed as an Olympic sporting event in the 2020 Games. The International Olympic Committee, in trying to keep true to its Charter to constantly review events against a broad range of criteria for inclusion, decided two weeks ago that this most ancient of sports, dating back to at least 708 B.C.E., when it was part of the first Olympics ever, no longer qualified as an Olympic event.
To give some background, each sport in the recently concluded Games was evaluated against criteria from the IOC program commission. As the 2016 Summer Games are already set, one sport from the London list of twenty-six had to be cut from the next, the 2020 Olympiad.
When making decisions about what events to cut from the Games, the IOC’s Executive Committee considers eight themes: Governance, History and Tradition, Universality, Popularity, the Athletes themselves, Development of the Sport, and Finance. TV ratings, ticket sales, a sport’s anti-doping policies, gender issues, global participation—all these now also factor more and more into the decision to carry that sport through to future games, and keep the Games in tune with the present and future, as much as the past.
Since the decision about wrestling was handed down, hyperspace has been buzzing with speculation about the secret ballot, about what factors contributed to the somewhat surprising judgment—and what’s next for the sport’s Olympic future?
Did FILA, the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées, which is international wrestling’s governing body, spend enough time pressing flesh throughout the IOC in support of its continuation? By many accounts, no.
Apparently, FILA didn’t believe it had to, if Nenad Lalovic’s reaction is any barometer. The new interim president of FILA said that the decision was completely unexpected. Yet it seems that the qualification decision had been narrowed to choosing between wresting and the modern pentathlon, and that race had been the subject of conversation for several weeks leading up to the February vote. And that perhaps some in the wrestling community could see the clouds on the horizon and warned FILA’s leadership that the historic nature of the sport would not continue to be its saving grace. Yet those warnings fell on deaf ears.
Supporters for the modern pentathlon were well represented at the February meeting of the IOC’s Executive Committee, and lobbied enough to keep their sport in the mix. Do politics count for anything in the Olympics? Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. is the first vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), elected to that post in 1996. He sits on the Spanish Olympic Committee—and he sits on the IOC executive board. His late father was a former president of the International Olympic Committee.
Samaranch matters, in every sense of the word. And the first World Cup of Modern Pentathlon just took place in Palm Springs, CA. The Modern Pentathlon is keeping itself relevant.
Wrestling has no representatives on the IOC board. The countries where wrestling is most important, such as Russia (11 wrestling medals in London to the United States’ 4), Azerbaijan (7 medals), Iran (6), and Georgia (6) have no clout on the IOC executive board. Neither does the United States. None of the executive board’s 15 members is from those countries. Wrestling has no champions, and in those more crucial days and hours leading up to the vote, had no voice. Not even a murmur.
Was this seemingly catastrophic oversight, then, the product of arrogance? Of entitlement? Or of stagnation? One could ask Raphael Martinetti, but the former president of FILA resigned at the association’s executive committee meeting in Phuket, Thailand, the Saturday following the IOC’s decision.
The questions we need to ask are those the IOC asks. Does wrestling meet the standards of tradition, of universality, of popularity? According to some, such as Wyoming’s Rulon Gardner, who is now a farmer but took gold from Russia’s Greco-Roman super-heavyweight Aleksandr Karelin in the 2000 Sydney Games, wrestling is a classic, simple sport that’s easy to understand and televise.
Furthermore, that wrestling can have a dramatic flair is an understatement. Gardner’s upset of Karelin was ranked Number Seven in the Bleacher Report’s Top Ten Sport Upsets just two short years ago, and was included in The Good Men Project’s list of 10 Transcendant Olympic Moments.
Yet by Lalovic’s own admission, wrestling is partly to blame for its own demotion. Lalovic told The Associated Press that wrestling needs more user-friendly rules that would benefit spectators, television and athletes.
And in terms of universality, the sport doesn’t even come close. There were 205 national Olympic committees represented at the London Games. The wrestling competition included only 71 of them, or 35 percent. Not even half. There are 12 African IOC members. In London, there was one African wrestling medalist.
Perhaps most importantly, as far as the IOC is concerned, ticket sales to wrestling events in London fell short when compared to many other events which sold out.
Even the apparent bow to gender equality with the advent of women’s wrestling in the 2004 Games, and the concession of two men’s wrestling events in the 2016 Games to make room for more women, didn’t slam the guarantee home, although the feeling across much of wrestling was that those actions should have.
What happens next?
In May, the same IOC committee who voted in February will decide which of eight candidate sports, including wrestling, baseball and softball, two martial arts (wushu and karate), sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and inline skating, it will recommend for inclusion on the 2020 program, which can have 28 sports.
The full IOC membership then will decide which sports to approve at its annual meeting in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The executive board could recommend one, three or no sports. The voting rules for final approval of new sports have yet to be determined.
How does wrestling regain its stature and relevancy? There’s but no question that FILA has its work cut out.
First, there is consensus that the organization must rebuild its relationships with the Olympic community.
Second, the rules and ranking system of wrestling need to be simplified. As Lalovic said from FILA’s headquarters in Switzerland, “If an Olympic champion of 20 years ago were to attend a wrestling tournament now, he probably could not tell what is going on. Wrestling has become a sport purely for experts. The rules have to be clearer and the sport more attractive and spectacular. I would like a spectator to come into an arena and know all the rules by the time he or she goes out. Our first priority is to change the rules, but it cannot happen overnight.”
Wrestling, which remains on the program for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, still has a chance to get back on the list for 2020, if its leadership can seize the opportunity still available and convince the IOC it can and will respond strongly and correctly.
“This is not the end of the day. The door is not closed,” IOC Vice President Thomas Bach of Germany, who is also the President of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), said. “It’s good to see the reaction of FILA to say, `OK we have understood, we have to do something and we will present a plan for the future of wrestling.’ That is the right attitude.”
If lobbying and marketing are among the best first steps, then Lalovic and his board have taken the not-so-subtle hint. Several days ago, on March 1st, they met with IOC Vice President Bach in Frankfurt, Germany to begin the humbling process.
According to FILA’s homepage, it was a friendly, productive session, with Bach advising Lalovic on what FILA and the international wrestling community had to focus on, Lalovic recounting what measures FILA was already taking to address rule changes, the decision making process, global development of wrestling, and gender equality. According to Mr. Manfred Werner, President of the German Wrestling Federation who also attended, “it was an excellent follow-up” to the IOC’s decision on wrestling’s Olympic outlook.
Is it enough? There was nothing posted on the IOC website about the meeting. Who knows if that’s a sign? The next meetings in May will tell us more.