After a seven-month exile, wrestling reclaimed its place on the Olympic stage Sunday, beating squash and a combined bid by baseball and softball for the lone remaining spot on the program for the 2020 and 2024 Summer Games.
Persuaded that the ancient sport is committed to remaking itself to appeal to a more diverse, contemporary audience, a majority of International Olympic Committee delegates favored wrestling’s addition in first-round balloting held in Buenos Aires.
Wrestling drew 49 votes; baseball-softball, 24; and squash, 22, after representatives of each made one final, 20-minute sales pitch about how their sport could strengthen the 21st century Olympic brand.
Wrestling officials jumped with joy, and at least one shed tears when IOC President Jacques Rogge announced that the sport had been selected, according to Nenad Lalovic, president of the sport’s international governing body, which is known by the acronym FILA.
“I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now,” Lalovic said in thanking IOC voters. “We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic movement that we can be.”
Lalovic was installed as FILA’s president after his predecessor was ousted following the stunning decision by the IOC’s executive board on Feb. 12 to drop wrestling following the 2016 Olympics.
The decision baffled enthusiasts of the sport and fans of the Olympics worldwide. But insiders familiar with the workings of the politically charged IOC understood it as a rebuke to wrestling’s leadership, which had shown indifference to repeated calls to revamp the sport’s confounding rules and staid presentation, rather than a rejection of wrestling itself.
Officials then sprang to action, ousting FILA’s president, simplifying the rules, adding weight classes for women and exploring ways to jazz up its presentation, such as changing the color of the mats and restyling the traditional singlet.
Sunday’s vote welcoming wrestling back into the Olympic fold represented an endorsement of those initiatives, much like a parent releasing a naughty child from a timeout.
“Wrestling has shown great passion and resilience in the last few months,” said Rogge, whose 12-year tenure as the IOC’s president comes to an end Tuesday, when his successor will be elected on the final day of meetings in the Argentine capital. “They have taken a number of steps to modernize and improve their sport, including the addition of more women and athletes in decision-making positions; rule changes to make the sport more exciting and easy to understand; and an increase in the number of women’s competitions. We are pleased with their reaction and happy to have wrestling on the Olympic program in 2020 and 2024.”
It was a costly road back to the IOC’s good graces, however, entailing a worldwide public-relations blitz and lobbying campaign to rally supporters and sway decision-makers.
Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, estimated the price tag “in the millions of dollars.”
“I think it has been something that was needed,” Bender added of the global initiative to modernize the sport and galvanize supporters. “The sport answered the bell, so to speak.”
But the vote came as a disappointment to supporters of squash and the baseball-softball effort.
Two-time Olympian Jennie Finch, who led the U.S. softball team to a third consecutive gold medal in 2004 and silver in 2008, responded via Twitter: “We will keep fighting, keep playing, keep supporting, keep growing & keep DREAMING & BELIEVING!”
Baseball and softball were dropped from the Olympics following the 2008 Beijing Games.
Its sales pitch to IOC voters Sunday stressed a worldwide fan base of 200 million, softball’s global growth among girls and women and both sports’ youthful following on digital media. Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig voiced his support in a video but extended no promise of adjusting the MLB calendar to accommodate the Olympics.
Squash, which has never been part of the Games, was formally seeking inclusion for a third time. Its defeat, said Kevin Klipstein, chief executive of US Squash, was sure to disappoint its 15 million to 20 million participants worldwide.
“Squash overall has made a ton of progress in the last decades,” Klipstein said in a telephone interview. “We have an improved broadcast product in all five continents. Participation has doubled in the last five years. We have parity among women, not only in prize money but in participation. If and when the IOC is looking forward to including a sport that supports their ideals, we should be at the top of the list.”
Klipstein called it “a head-scratcher” that the IOC’s process these last months had not resulted in any genuine “addition” to the 2020 Olympics but rather a restoration of a sport. It was a point that Canadian IOC member Dick Pound raised Sunday, as well.
Troubled by the proliferation of Olympic sports and skyrocketing cost of staging the Games, the IOC voted in 2002 to cap the number of sports at 28, designating 25 as “core sports” and reserving three spots for sports to be added on a provisional basis.
Sunday’s victory doesn’t mean wrestling’s work is done, Lalovic cautioned, noting that the sport must redirect its momentum into a campaign to gain “core sport” status. “Our rightful place in the Olympic family is being a core sport,” Lalovic said.
But as wrestling remakes itself for the 21st century, Bender, the USA Wrestling chief, called for careful deliberation.
“It’s somewhat of a balance,” Bender said. “Those of us that are in this sport feel pretty passionate about the fact that this is the greatest sport we’ve ever known. We can’t lose sight of what’s right with wrestling and assume it needs a complete reset button.”