Wrestling survived the first round in its bid to win reinstatement as an Olympic sport, but its battle isn’t over. The International Olympic Committee’s executive board Wednesday placed wrestling, squash and baseball/softball on a short list of sports from which only one will be chosen for inclusion in the 2020 Games.
That’s the same 15-member panel that three months ago voted to drop wrestling, one of the oldest Olympic sports, from the Summer Games starting in 2020 — a decision that confounded casual sports fans and caught wrestling’s international governing body off guard.
Wednesday’s closed-door vote in St. Petersburg, Russia, was only one step — but a critical step — toward preserving wrestling’s Olympic status. It reflects the fruits of a furious lobbying blitz by the sport’s international leaders and grassroots supporters to demonstrate wrestling’s global reach and its willingness to change to appeal to TV audiences, a top priority of the IOC.
Wrestling was vying with seven other sports for a single spot as a so-called “provisional” sport in the 2020 Olympics after it was dropped as one of the Olympics’ 25 core sports Feb. 12.
On Wednesday, wrestling emerged the hands-down winner, the only sport to get eight of the 14 votes cast and thus secure a short-list spot in the first round of deliberations. Squash and a combined bid by baseball and softball, which were dropped following the 2008 Beijing Games, joined wrestling in subsequent rounds of voting. The five sports that missed the cut: karate, rock climbing, roller sports, wakeboarding and wushu.
“It’s not finished,” Nenad Lalovic, the recently elected president of FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, said in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg. “But I think we impressed them because we have changed in such a short time.”
The final decision will be made by the 101-member IOC general assembly in a vote scheduled for Sept. 8 in Buenos Aires. As of now, wrestling will be not contested at the Olympics after the 2016 Rio Games.
“Obviously we feel incredibly passionate about the fact that wrestling is the greatest sport known to man,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, during a conference call after the vote. “And we will not rest until every one of the IOC members at least hears our story.”
Following wrestling’s surprising ouster from the Games, the tradition-steeped sport simplified its Olympic rules, making them easier to understand and more conducive to offense. It overhauled its international governance structure, which many felt had grown complacent and self-satisfied, replacing FILA president Raphael Martinetti with Lalovic, who took part in Wednesday’s presentation to IOC board members. It added more women to its governing body, guaranteed that at least one FILA vice president would be female, and created a commission to encourage greater participation by girls and women.
Jim Scherr, a 1988 Olympic wrestler and a former CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was among the five who presented wrestling’s case to the IOC board Wednesday. Speaking to reporters afterward, Scherr said the recent rules changes were “20 years overdue” and would make wrestling more compelling TV fare by encouraging more action, penalizing passivity and removing the element of chance from tiebreak scenarios.
While wrestling’s swift and decisive response boded well heading into Wednesday’s vote, the reprieve granted baseball/softball had not been anticipated. It puts the U.S. Olympic Committee in a slightly delicate position, with the IOC pitting two of the country’s more storied and beloved sports against each another for a place in the 2020 Games.
“As wrestlers, one thing we do well is compete,” said Bender, the USA Wrestling executive. “Our strategy is not going to be negative toward the other sports. But we will not be shy about speaking about the positive attributes of our sport and the relevance we bring to the Olympic movement.”