Like nearly everyone else in the global wrestling community, Jordan Holm felt shocked and alarmed by the recommendation to eliminate wrestling from the Olympic Games beginning in 2020. It seemed inconceivable that the sport depicted on ancient Greek urns, one embedded so deeply in the fabric of the Olympics, could be dumped.
But Holm, one of the top Greco-Roman wrestlers in the nation, soon joined a growing number of athletes and officials who believed the International Olympic Committee’s decision could open a door rather than close one.
“It was devastating news, but we kind of agreed with the IOC’s call to make changes,’’ said Holm, of Minneapolis. “We were willing to change, to take a positive step forward. And I think we really answered the call.’’
Wednesday, wrestling will try to convince the IOC’s executive board that it has changed enough to keep its place at the Olympic table. In the three months since the board made the recommendation, the sport has overhauled its international governance and instituted rule changes to create more action and excitement. It will present its case at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the board will decide which of eight sports — wrestling, baseball and softball, squash, karate, sport climbing, roller sports, wakeboarding and wushu — to recommend to the full IOC for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games.
As many as three sports are expected to make the ballot for the IOC’s September meeting. Only one will be chosen, with wrestling and squash the speculative favorites.
Last week, IOC President Jacques Rogge praised wrestling for the changes it has made. Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, said he is encouraged by signs that the IOC is satisfied with wrestling’s progress, but he cautioned that the sport cannot be complacent.
“If you think the cost of preserving Olympic wrestling is expensive, try elimination,’’ said Bender, who will be in St. Petersburg for the meeting. “It’s an opportunity to make some much-needed change and improve how our sport is governed and presented. If we’re successful [in remaining part of the Olympics], it will be the greatest thing that ever happened to our sport.’’
A rallying point
The IOC recommendation sparked a tremendous outpouring of support for wrestling around the world. Social media campaigns gained millions of followers, and at least 20 states and the U.S. Senate passed resolutions supporting wrestling’s inclusion in the Olympics. Celebrities ranging from actor Ashton Kutcher to Russian President Vladimir Putin have gotten involved. A flood of donations has helped raise the $2 million being spent on the U.S. effort.
Three-time Olympian Dan Chandler, who coaches the Minnesota Storm club, was among the Americans who helped devise the revised rules. They include changing match formats from three periods of two minutes each to two periods of three minutes each; making scoring cumulative throughout the bout; and strengthening penalties for passivity.
Chandler was among those who saw warning signs. He said that FILA, the sport’s international governing body, had long been “corrupt and arrogant’’ and ignored the IOC’s calls to make the sport more spectator-friendly and diversify its governance.
FILA was “run like a little Communist party,’’ Chandler said, with its president, Raphael Martinetti, wielding absolute power against those who advocated change. Martinetti resigned after the recommendation to drop wrestling.
Nenad Lalovic of Serbia was elected to the post May 18 at a FILA meeting that also included approval of the new rules, an expanded voice for athletes in the organization and the inclusion of women in key leadership roles.
The rule changes debuted the day after their adoption, at a freestyle event in Los Angeles featuring teams from the United States, Russia and Canada. Holm said a 14-3 victory by Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs over Russia’s Saba Khubetzhty demonstrated how the new rules will stimulate higher scores and more action.
“I’m thrilled about it,’’ said Holm, who won the 84-kilogram title at the U.S. Open and the Curby Cup in recent weeks. “Before, the rules encouraged more strategy and defense. The new rules encourage a more dynamic, explosive performance. You don’t get anything by default; you have to fight and earn it.
“Burroughs lit up the scoreboard. That’s the kind of thing people want to see. I haven’t heard a single wrestler say they’re not excited about the new rules.’’
Optimism, but work remains
Chandler said he is “cautiously optimistic’’ that wrestling will survive the attempted ouster. Still, he is nervous, because there is so much at stake and the IOC is unpredictable.
Despite the uncertainty, Bender said he is gratified by the overwhelming display of public support for wrestling and the opportunity to chart a new course. Wrestling is better and more relevant for having gone through this crisis, he said, and he hopes that officials, athletes and fans remain engaged even after its Olympic status is decided.
Holm, 31, is shooting for an Olympic berth at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Though he hopes that goal remains for the wrestlers who will come after him, he views the effort to save Olympic wrestling as a virtue in itself.
“We’re re-energizing the athletes and re-energizing the sport,’’ he said. “We can walk off the mat knowing we’ve done everything we can. As wrestlers, that’s the only thing we know how to do.’’