Wrestling gets off the mat, makes move toward the future


Wrestler Kyle Dake battles for position with Hassan Tahmasebi, of Iran, during an international wrestling match at Vanderbilt Hall inside of Grand Central Terminal in New York. The event, which featured wrestling teams from the United States, Iran and Russia, was billed as 'The Rumble on the Rails', and was partially designed to gather support for wrestling as an Olympic sport. (JUSTIN LANE/EPA)

Wrestling got a repechage last week — a second chance to keep its spot on the Olympic roster for 2020 after losing its “core sport” designation in February. If wrestling ultimately fails in its bid for reinstatement, 2016 might be the last time it is held at an Olympics.

The sport waged a world-wide lobbying blitz during the three months since it was axed, and it seems to have paid off. Thus will one of the events held at the Ancient Olympics compete with baseball/softball and squash for the one remaining spot on the crowded Olympic calendar.

The 15-member IOC executive board voted behind closed doors — naturally — in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida; the IOC doesn’t do Florida), and wrestling got eight votes. That, in IOC parlance, is a landslide. The sports that were eliminated? Karate, rock climbing, roller sports, wakeboarding and wushu, a form of martial arts.

On Sept. 8, the full IOC will determine wrestling’s fate, at the same time it chooses a host for the 2020 Games. Istanbul is in the running, and wrestling is very popular in Turkey; that may help its case considerably.

Wrestling overhauled itself after the February vote, starting with the leadership of its international governing body, FILA, then acting to make the sport more inclusive to girls and women and guaranteeing there be female representation on FILA’s board. Then it changed its scoring: The wrestler with the most points will win, instead of the wrestler who wins two out of three rounds. Passivity and stalling with be penalized more severely, and takedowns will be worth more points than merely shoving an opponent out of bounds.

Those changes were designed to make the sport more exciting. They also were long overdue — 20 years overdue, according to Jim Scherr, a former CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a former Olympic wrestler.

They should also be a cautionary tale for other longtime Olympic events: Resist modernization at your peril.

The modern pentathlon used to be the most oxymoronically named sport at the Olympics; little about it was actually modern. But that sport saw the threat coming and changed its format, making it far more compelling to watch.

And that’s what the IOC wants: continued boffo ratings for its Games. In fairness, that’s no different from what college and professional sports want; it’s just that the Olympics likes to tout itself as a Lollapalooza of amateur athletics (although no one really buys that anymore).

But the IOC does have a unique product to sell. For two weeks every two years, Americans — and everyone else in the world — can see sports and events that they otherwise might not even know existed.

Wrestling doesn’t quite fit that mold, but it’s not far off.

The real shame is that it took a near-death blow by the IOC to get the attention of the sport. Being reinstated as a provisional sport is a long step down from being a “core” sport. But it is wrestling’s best — and perhaps last — chance. Here’s hoping the sport makes it through the repechage and back into the main draw where it belongs.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
United States 8 19 17 44
China 10 11 7 41
Russia 2 11 3 35
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