On its face, it seems unfathomable that the International Olympic Committee would vote wrestling out of the Summer Games starting in 2020. It's one of the original Olympic sports, one depicted on ancient pottery unearthed in the birthplace of the Games. It's one of the most democratic, as pointed out by several of Minnesota's wrestling Olympians; it's popular all over the world, it allows countries such as Uzbekistan to participate in the Olympics, and people of both genders, all sizes and all economic backgrounds can excel.
Not that democracy means anything to the IOC, of course. Politics clearly factored heavily into the Tuesday decision of the IOC's executive board to give wrestling the boot, and now wrestling's supporters are scrambling to try and get back in. So how did this happen, and does wrestling have any shot to return to the Olympic program, where it has been part of every Summer Games since 1904?
It was known that the IOC expected to drop a sport at Tuesday's meeting. It had been widely assumed that the odd sport out would be modern pentathlon, which combines fencing, shooting, horseback riding, swimming and running. The board received reports on all 26 current Olympic sports noting how each scored in key factors such as TV ratings, ticket sales and global popularity and participation. According to the Associated Press, which obtained some of the documents, wrestling ranked low in several categories--but so did modern pentathlon. And wrestling clearly has greater popularity and participation around the world. A total of 71 countries sent wrestlers to the 2012 London Olympics. There were 26 countries represented in modern pentathlon.
The difference: modern pentathlon has friends in high places, and wrestling has an international governing body asleep at the switch. Modern pentathlon is largely a sport of European bluebloods--the kind of folks that run the IOC--and was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement. The first vice-president of its international governing body is Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., an IOC executive board member and son of the longtime IOC president. Modern pentathlon's governing body also understood its precarious position and lobbied the IOC to keep it.
Many of the power countries in wrestling are not politically connected within the IOC, and its international governing body, FILA, seemed to be fiddling while Greco-Roman burned. University of Iowa coach Tom Brands said Tuesday there were "warning signs'' that wrestling was in trouble, and the AP reported that the IOC noted that FILA "has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women's commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.'' Agence France-Presse also reported that FILA did not lobby the IOC, thinking its status as an original Olympic sport was enough to keep it safe.
Among those placing some blame on FILA were Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, and Brandon Paulson of Anoka, a silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who now coaches at his Pinnacle Wrestling School in Shoreview. "The international governing body didn't do its job,'' Paulson said. "It should have known.''
Gophers coach J Robinson, a 1972 Olympian in Greco-Roman, lamented that the IOC is chasing the young X Games demographic that pump up TV ratings and bring in more TV rights dollars. The choice to drop a sport, IOC officials said, was to "renew and renovate'' the Olympic sports program. "They're driving the Olympics away from its roots,'' Robinson said. "They've moved into commercialism.''
So what next? The American wrestling community immediately began marshaling support via social media and online petitions. Brands said there was a conference call Tuesday afternoon with several major American players in the sport, "people that can get it done with know-how and getting in front of the right people.'' Brands already had been in contact with U.S. wrestling icons such as Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson and John Smith to discuss strategy.
Paulson said he is ready to help wrestling improve in ways that will impress the IOC, making changes that would make the sport more exciting for spectators. USA Wrestling distributed talking points for supporters on a Facebook page it created called "Keep Wrestling in the Olympics.'' Chas Betts of St. Michael, who competed in the 2012 London Games in Greco-Roman, said that "when something like this happens, everyone gets involved. The wrestling community is strong.''
The IOC executive board will meet in May to decide which sport to recommend to its full membership for inclusion in the 2020 Games. A final vote will occur in September. Wrestling will make its case then, as will baseball/softball; wakeboarding; roller sports; karate; squash; sport climbing; and wushu, a Chinese martial art.
"We're got to fight,'' Brands said. "We've got to right a wrong, because it's a wrong. ... These countries that all feel the same, being ambushed, need to unify. We fight in an educated, unified manner, and the United States has to lead the charge.''