LAST WORD: 2020 Vision – The International Olympic Committee's hazy recommendation to remove wrestling

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By Clay J. Gray
Photos by Mark Burnham

The morning of Feb. 12 greeted the world’s wrestling community with a firestorm of texts, tweets, posts, blogs, and press releases: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had announced that they were to remove wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program.

I was still in utter disbelief, yet sure enough, the IOC’s official press release confirmed their recommendation that wrestling be removed from the list of core sports for the 2020 Games.

How could the IOC exclude wrestling, a sport that had been present in the ancient games? How could they oust a sport that has been in every modern Olympics since the third modern Olympic games in 1904? How could they cast aside a sport that was represented by 71 countries in the 2012 games?

Still, there is a glimmer of hope. Wrestling had been demoted to a shortlisted sport, a list also comprised of baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and Wushu. All eight shortlisted sports will have the opportunity to make a presentation for their inclusion in the 2020 games. The catch: the presentation is to the IOC’s executive board, the same board that just recommended wrestling’s removal.

I do not intend to belittle the accomplishments of any athlete or the amount of work required to make it to the elite levels in any sport, but
much of my incredulity is targeted at those that remained on the list of core sports. Sports like equestrian, modern pentathlon, and sailing are elitist and exclusive to people of means, with each sport calling for expensive equipment and facilities; wrestling, according to the official Olympic website, requires only wrestling boots and a singlet.

The more I read of its history, the less I understood the IOC’s decision. Within the Olympic Games there is a project known as the “Olympic Spirit.” According to Juan Antonio Samaranch, a board member for the IOC, this project intends to “give more people a chance to experience the Olympic Games.” If the Olympic Spirit project is committed to friendship, honor, peace, fair play, and glory how could the IOC recommend removing a sport brings together over 180 nations? The internet was soon flooded with opinions as to why the IOC would have made such a recommendation.

Some people claimed it was political power play by western nations to alienate Middle Eastern nations; others pointed to a corrupt IOC, citing the blatant conflict of interest of Samaranch (also the first vice president of the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne) in voting to keep the modern pentathlon instead of wrestling.

According to reports from the IOC and The Associated Press, it was the corruption and sexism present in the Federation Internationale des Luttes Associees (FILA) — the international governing body for wrestling — that really motivated the IOC’s decision. The IOC pointed to the absence of athletes on FILA’s decision-making bodies, a nonexistent women’s commission, and a few other omissions from FILA’s policies and practices.

Although these issues are legitimate concerns and should be rectified to ensure wrestling moves forward in the spirit of inclusion and fair play, they simply do not justify the outright removal of wrestling from the Olympics. Furthermore, the IOC citing corruption and ineptitude in FILA’s board is nothing more than a fallacy of composition; it is implied that since the FILA executive board and its policies show signs of corruption and sexism, then the sport as a whole must also be corrupt and sexist.

Furthermore, the IOC listed low interest, low attendance, and low ratings as further justification for giving wrestling the boot. Yet wrestling is present in 180 countries and has millions of active athletes around the world. Wrestling also sold 113,851 of 116,854 available tickets in London and had an average of 23 million viewers. Meanwhile, the Modern Pentathlon remains a core sport while being present in only 108 countries, and had an average viewership of 12.5 million — which wrestling almost doubled.

Even though wrestling is for the majority an old boys club, women’s wrestling may prove to be its most crucial partner for success. Twenty years after the creation of the first committee for women’s wrestling, it had grown to an Olympic sport — though some people still see this as a work in progress, pointing to the unequal distribution of medals amongst the sexes, and bemoaning the fact that women only have four events to the 14 events for men. Olympic wrestling follows two styles: freestyle and Greco-Roman. For each style, male wrestlers are allotted seven weight classes ranging from 55 to 120 kilograms. Sadly, there is currently no female Greco- Roman wrestling to help balance this lopsided equation, giving FILA a small justification for the unequal medal count.

However, the decision by FILA to include only four women’s weight classes — instead of the customary seven — in their Olympic Program pins the organization flat on its back. The only way for FILA to combat these allegations of sexism is to include all seven-weight classes that exist at every other women’s wrestling tournament.

Inside of the first week after the IOC’s fateful press release the president of FILA, Mr. Raphael Martinetti, had tendered his resignation. Olympic preservation committees had been formed and the battle lines had been drawn: wrestling had one last chance to remain in the Olympics.

In May of this year, the IOC executive board will reconvene in St. Petersburg, Russia to receive presentations from the eight shortlisted sports for the 2020 Olympic Games. The IOC will then review the presentation and deliver their final decision at their 125th session in Beuno Aires, Argentina on Sept. 10.

Wrestling is an ancient sport, an institution that unites men and women from 180 countries around the world. It doesn’t cost much to join so whether you grow up on a farm in Saskatchewan or in Khuzestan Province of Iran, you have a relatively fair chance to access a wrestling program.

If the IOC can’t see that wrestling belongs in the Olympics, then the executive board should all have their eyesight tested.