After waking up to the stunning news that International Olympic Committee leaders had voted to drop wrestling from the Summer Games beginning in 2020, the U.S. wrestling community responded as young grapplers are taught: It girded for challenge.
In this case, the playing field isn’t a mat, but the tricky political terrain of the IOC, whose business is largely conducted by secret ballot behind closed doors.
That’s how it came to pass Tuesday morning in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the IOC’s 15-member executive board voted to drop one of the oldest Olympic sports from its list of 25 “core sports” while retaining newer additions such as modern pentathlon and taekwondo.
Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, voiced surprise and disappointment over a decision that caught wrestling’s national and international governing bodies off guard. He vowed that USA Wrestling would take the lead in an international effort to persuade IOC officials to reverse course, stressing wrestling’s central role in the original Greek Olympic Games and the sport’s present-day global reach.
Closer to home, veteran college coach John McHugh, 77, who nurtured wrestling programs at Catholic and American before taking the reins at the University of Maryland for 25 years, had trouble digesting the news.
“I’m shocked,” McHugh said. “Some of the other sports they have, like fencing — how many people in our country fence? Very few. I believe there’s going to be so much of an uproar, they’ll meet again and reconsider this.”
Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, was equally shocked when the first e-mail appeared on his phone during his Tuesday morning Rotary Club meeting.
“What’s so stunning is how a decision of this magnitude could be made without any forewarning,” Moyer said. “You’d like to think the Olympics would be more inclusive than exclusive. But this decision absolutely impacts wrestling at every level all the way down the grass-roots level.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Maryland wrestling Coach Kerry McCoy, who competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and served as a U.S. wrestling coach at the 2008 Beijing Games, was well on his way to galvanizing support for the sport’s future in the Games.
“The nature of our sport is to be in battle,” said McCoy, whose Terrapins have won the last two ACC championships. “When somebody says a wrestler can’t do something, he’s going to prove them wrong and find a way to go over, around or through that challenge. So this is an opportunity to further emphasize why wrestling is such a great sport.”
According to Moyer, wrestling is currently the sixth most popular high school boys sport in the United States, with more than 270,000 participants. While the ranks have thinned in NCAA Division I, 95 college wrestling teams have been added since 1999, primarily in Divisions II, III and the NAIA. The sport’s popularity also is growing among American girls and women, Moyer said.
Needing to cull its current list of 26 Summer Olympic sports to 25, the IOC executive board considered a handful of sports for elimination in a private meeting. While several sports perceived as vulnerable lobbied vigorously to be spared, wrestling didn’t mount much of a campaign, according to a person familiar with the process, assuming that its ancient tradition and historic role in the Olympic Games would ensure its future.
A reprieve is possible, though deemed unlikely.
Wrestling now joins seven other sports that will campaign for inclusion (or re-instatement) in 2020. The IOC board will choose one among them at a May meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. The others vying for that single spot: karate, squash, roller sport, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu and a combined bid from baseball and softball, which were were voted out of the Olympics in 2005 in a move that was widely interpreted as a rejection of American dominance. The IOC’s executive board has not included an American since 2001.
Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, pledged continued support of American wrestlers and the effort to keep the sport in the Olympics.
“Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced,” he said in a statement. “It is important to remember that today’s action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world.”