The International Olympic Committee made the right decision — and how often do we hear that? — when it voted Sunday to return wrestling, at least provisionally, to the Olympic program.
The fact that wrestling, one of the original Olympic sports — and I don’t mean original as in 1896, but original as in 708 B.C. — had to fight for its Olympic life was a defibrillator to the heart of the sport’s leadership and community: shocking, painful, and probably life-saving. Losing the international platform of the Olympics would have had a trickle-down effect, at least in this country, to college and high school programs.
In February, the IOC voted on 25 “core” sports that would make up the Olympic program beginning with the 2020 Games. In a stunning move, wrestling was not on the list. To the sport’s credit, it immediately began grappling (couldn’t resist) with its perceived problems. Three days after the IOC’s decision, Raphael Martinetti resigned as president of FILA, the sport’s international governing body. Nenad Lalovic of Serbia was named acting president, and the sport immediately turned its attention to problems with its rules, gender equity and the internal workings of FILA.
On May 18, FILA met in Moscow to vote on the changes, and Lalovic was elected president, losing the “acting” from his title. Eleven days later, the IOC trimmed its list of eight possible sports for 2020 to three — and wrestling made the cut. The timing was no coincidence.
Baseball-softball and squash also made it to Sunday’s final vote. The pairing of baseball and softball is not advantageous to softball, but that sport has not spread as far or as fast as organizers hoped when it was added to the Games. It’s a loss for U.S. fans, because the American team was always good and fun to watch. Wrestling got 49 votes; the baseball-softball bid got 24 and squash got 22.
Karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu were on the original list of eight possible inclusions, and the idea that this was wrestling’s competition was pretty sad, but indicative of the problems the IOC perceived in the running of the international body and the rules of the sport.
FILA changed some of its inner workings. It added two weight classes for women in time for the 2016 Games. And it adopted new rules that will make the action more aggressive. There will be less stalling and more scoring, and the winner will be decided on total points, not the best two-of-three periods. Stalling will be penalized. Offensive takedowns will earn two points. The matches will be faster and more exciting.
Wrestling needed that. The sport had changed quite a bit since 708 B.C. but not so much since 1896 — at least not enough. The world is more fast-paced, and the Olympics are trying to keep up. Even creaky sports like modern pentathlon — which I love, by the way — have avoided the chopping block by shortening their formats and creating more action.
The Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling moved quickly and boldly to improve the sport, at least by the standards of the IOC, and while the changes may not seem great to purists, the fact is wrestling needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs wrestling. Sadly, the sport is still on trial; wrestling will be on the 2016 program and Sunday’s vote means it will be included in 2020 and 2024 as a provisional sport, which means it will continue to have to fight for its place in the Games.
Wrestling has 177 federations on six continents. At the 2012 Games in London, a record-setting 71 countries qualified for the Olympics, with 29 winning medals. That’s an impressive number, but without the Olympics, a wrestler’s ultimate goal would be the world championships, which get almost no attention.
The Olympics are not perfect: the haughty corruption of the IOC, the annoyance of NBC’s “packaging,” the debt and abandoned buildings they often leave in their wake, the failed drug tests, and on and on. But they have always been a favorite with me because every four years, we are able to see sports that otherwise don’t garner a lot of media attention, at least not in this country. Wrestling, modern pentathlon, team handball, Nordic combined — those are truly Olympic sports.
The IOC made the right decision Sunday. We should savor it — it happens with even less frequency than the Olympics themselves.
For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.