Chris Parisi reports on wrestling’s reelection to the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games.
After a seven-month long grapple, a huge sigh of relief could be heard in various corners of the planet as wrestling was elected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to be the last of the 26 sports that will form the core of the 2020 and 2024 Games. The result of the vote—49 votes for wrestling, versus 24 for the combination of baseball and softball, and 22 for squash—left no doubt that the Olympic Executive Committee felt that wresting’s leadership had addressed their concerns, that their message had been received loud and clear.
The very popular decision was rendered at the 125th full Session of the IOC in Buenos Aires, after the full membership of the IOC agreed on Tokyo as the host of the 2020 Games. The result marks more than a bit of resurrection for the historic sport that was threatened by irrelevance and even humiliation on a global sporting scale had FILA’s (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) leadership not reacted as they did to the sport’s initial, preliminary exclusion from the Games. IOC vice-presidents and Executive Board members Thomas Bach and Ng Ser Miang quickly acknowledged FILA President Nenad Lalovic and his team’s efforts.
“Wrestling represents the tradition of the Olympic Games and the Olympic programme has always to be a balance between tradition and progress,” said 59-year-old Bach. It “is a pillar of our history and represents tradition like no other sport.” Ng, Singapore’s ambassador to Norway, said it was well deserved, a “reward for sterling work.”
In expressing his gratitude to “the millions of wrestlers, supporters and fans around the world that came together to save Olympic wrestling”, Lalovic noted that the sweeping changes made to the sport over the last year reflected wrestling’s determination to adapt to a changing sporting audience and evolving societal mores. “With this vote,” he said in a statement after the announcement, “you (the IOC) have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference. I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic Movement that we can be.”
To recap, back in February of this year, the International Olympic Committee voted not to include wrestling as a core sport in the 2020 Games. The decision stunned the international wrestling community as it reacted to the prospect of their sport, one with perhaps the deepest historic roots in the Games, not being part of the Olympics.
Previously ignored concerns from sporting and Olympic circles surrounding gender inequality, a stagnant, unpopular format with confusing rules and scoring, and perceptions of FILA officials as haughty, privileged and arrogant, were suddenly of the utmost importance.
In immediate response, Lalovic was elected by the FILA Congress to replace Raphael Martinetti, the former president who resigned at the FILA executive committee meeting in Phuket immediately upon hearing of the IOC announcement. The new president has been absolutely brilliant in laboring through a series of herculean tasks that have accomplished more growth and evolution of the sport in seven months than has been realized in seven years.
Under Lalovic’s forceful guidance, wrestling was kept in the Olympic conversation as its format was tweaked to make the rules easier to understand, the bouts more exciting to watch, and the scoring more equitable. The battle for wrestling’s reinstatement brought together political adversaries—Iran, the US, Russia, whose athletes participated in a promotional event inside New Your City’s Grand Central Station—while top women wrestlers from Canada, USA and the Ukraine tussled at the Wrestling Canada’s “Battle At The Falls” at Niagara Falls. The events were staged to build buzz around the sport and awareness of wrestling’s new Gender Equality.
Lalovic made sure that female representation was significant by adding permanent positions in FILA’s leadership, and more events in competition, changes that could never be taken as token. His efforts earned wrestling an IOC secret ballot advancement in May as one of the final three sports to be considered at this weekend’s full IOC meeting.
As an advocate for wrestling to remain a core Olympic sport, this decision pleases me for several reasons. First and foremost, I believe that this is a most historic sport, and we need to make room for such, else we lose our roots, our foundations. Second, the effort was there—thoughtful, impactful, appropriate. The improvements were truly improvements, and the sport has indeed proven that it is worthy of what I feel should be its rightful, reserved place, regardless of the flavor of the week.
And I’m convinced that Lalovic, whose son wrestles for Serbia, is the perfect leader for this time. Even as he realizes that this battle may be won, this “most important day in the 3,000 years of our existence”, he understands that the war to evolve, to maintain relevance, will continue, and he spent little time savoring his victory, assuring his audience that wrestling’s modernization would not end, that he was fully aware that plenty of work remained.
It’s a good lesson for fans and leadership of wrestling alike to learn—indeed, for all sports and entertainment to heed. While this is a breath of sweet redemption, in these uber-wired times with exponentially more distractions clamoring for our correspondingly short attention spans, that breath will have to be short, because there’s another event around the corner, more shiny objects to vie with, more adapting to compete in next generations.
But, for this great moment, congratulations to the wrestling family, to all who did what was needed. Helluva takedown. I’d say welcome back—but you never really left.
Photo: AP/J. Pat Carter