Far more than future Olympic medals will be at stake this weekend when the International Olympic Committee votes on whether to restore wrestling to the Summer Games for 2020.
The Olympic stage is the lifeblood of the sport, driving funding for grass-roots programs, college scholarships and international competitions. Reclaiming a place in the Games following wrestling’s shocking ouster in February, boosters say, is essential to keeping the ancient sport relevant today.
“The Olympics are the dream of every young wrestler,” says Bill Scherr, chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, a key player in the furious global lobbying campaign in advance of Sunday’s IOC vote on which sport to add to the 2020 program from among wrestling, squash and a combined baseball-softball bid.
“An Olympic berth is the culmination of any wrestling career,” added Scherr, a bronze medalist at the 1988 Seoul Games. “It’s vital for us to be part of the Olympic Games.”
The vote is among three major decisions facing the 104 IOC members when they convene in Buenos Aires for meetings that stand to reshape the future of the Olympic movement:
On Saturday, the IOC will choose the host city for the 2020 Summer Games from among Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo, with fireworks sure to follow. Each city must allay concerns about its suitability during its final sales pitch: in the case of Istanbul, fears of spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria; for Madrid, worries about Spain’s struggling economy; and for Tokyo, questions over fallout from the compromised Fukushima nuclear plant.
Sunday, IOC delegates will vote on which sport to add for 2020.
And Tuesday, they will elect a successor to IOC President Jacques Rogge, who has served the past 12 years. Six candidates are vying for the powerful post, with Germany’s Thomas Bach, an Olympic vice president, regarded as the slight favorite on a slate rounded out by Richard Carrion (Puerto Rico), Ng Ser Miang (Singapore), Sergei Bubka (Ukraine), C.K. Wu (Taiwan) and Denis Oswald (Switzerland).
Rogge, a Belgian physician, delivered no prepared speech when he met with reporters in Buenos Aires on Thursday afternoon. But he fielded questions on a wide range of topics, including the recently enacted Russian law banning the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors. The breadth of the law has alarmed human-rights activists worldwide and raised concerns in the Olympic community over its application during the 2014 Sochi Games, which get underway Feb. 7.
“We have received some oral and written assurances about the fact the Russian Federation will respect the Olympic charter and no negative effect will occur for people attending in or participating in the Games,” Rogge said. “But one should not forget that we are staging the games in a sovereign state, and the IOC cannot be expected to have an influence on the sovereign affairs of a country.”
Pressed on whether the IOC did not have “moral authority” to adopt a stronger stance, Rogge insisted the IOC could not, and should not, intervene.
“We have clearly on various occasions expressed our view on situations in countries,” Rogge said. “But we are restricted in our power and our action by the fact that we are the guest of a sovereign country where we hold the Games.”
Regarding the sport that will be added, wrestling is believed to have the inside track after its international federation, known as FILA, responding swiftly and forcefully upon being kicked off the program six months ago. That decision, made by the IOC’s Executive Committee, represented a stinging rebuke of the sport’s leadership more than a rejection of the sport itself.
FILA had largely ignored repeated signals from the IOC that wrestling needed to do more to broaden its audience. But once the IOC’s executive committee lopped it from the list of the 25 “core sports,” wrestling supporters sprang into action worldwide, and FILA executives replaced their president, simplified the sport’s convoluted scoring system, added new weight classes for women and launched initiatives to jazz up its marketing to reach a younger demographic.
Baseball and softball were dropped from the Olympics following the 2008 Beijing Games. Its backers have waged a campaign for re-inclusion, too. But it faces a significant hurdle in being perceived as an American-dominated sport rather than a global one. Moreover, the United States has no special clout in the IOC, with only three Americans among its 104 voting members.
“I’d be stunned if wrestling weren’t chosen,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, noting that 29 countries won wrestling medals at the 2012 Games, a testament its multicultural reach.
But for all his expertise, Wallechinsky wouldn’t hazard a guess about the vote for the next IOC president, to be conducted by secret ballot.
“You just don’t know what’s going on their head — what sort of subtle lobbying has been going on, what favors have been done, what promises have been made,” Wallechinsky said of the IOC members. “It’s kind of like voting for the pope. You can have all of your bookmakers, but you don’t know. In the end, they go into the conclave.”