Wrestling takes disparate forms around the globe and across cultures. But to prevail in any discipline, wrestlers need strength, the ability to gain and exploit leverage and, ultimately, a superior will to win. Those are the qualities that supporters of Olympic wrestling are tapping in waging a campaign — part political, part public relations — to preserve the sport’s place in the Summer Games.
At the moment, wrestling is on the outside looking in, voted out of the Olympics as of the 2020 Games in a decision in February that left hard-core supporters and many casual sports fans baffled. The International Olympic Committee ousted an ancient sport that has been part of every modern Olympics since the inaugural 1896 Athens Games except one, and kept sports such as BMX cycling, synchronized swimming and beach volleyball.
Wrestling’s only recourse is to defeat seven other sports vying for one slot in the 2020 Olympics. Its competition: baseball/softball, climbing, karate, roller sports, squash, wakeboard and wushu. With the IOC’s executive board scheduled to hear the sales pitch of all eight and vote on its recommendation May 29-31 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the wrestling community is seeking to rally supporters and win converts.
Said Bill Scherr, a 1988 Olympic bronze medalist and chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW): “Our message to the IOC is, ‘We respect you. We respect your process. We believe it’s not the correct decision. And we will change, and change leadership, to make sure it’s an attractive sport and remains part of the Olympic movement.”
Scherr said he wasn’t surprised by the decision, having been warned by IOC insiders that wrestling was at risk because FILA, its international governing body, didn’t respond in earnest to a mandate that all Olympic sports raise more private money, modernize with an eye toward boosting TV coverage, leverage social media and develop gender equity.
Following the Feb. 12 vote, wrestling ousted FILA president Raphael Martinetti and hired consultants to help respond to the challenge IOC President Jacques Rogge issued as he set about reining in the bloated Summer Games and wooing younger TV viewers.
Among the changes Olympic wrestling is weighing: Simplifying its confusing tiebreak procedure, tweaking its rules to encourage more action and having Greco-Roman wrestlers compete shirtless.
Meantime, the fight has galvanized wrestling supporters at the grassroots level, too.
At the Ronald Reagan Building Thursday, CPOW (which pronounces its acronym “Ka-POW!”) will host a discussion of wrestling’s role in tackling social, economic and political challenges around the world. Representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development will take part, as will Scherr; Rulon Gardner, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist; and University of Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy, a two-time Olympian.
Next week, New York’s Grand Central Station will host “the Rumble on the Rails” — a wrestling meet involving Olympians from the United States, Russia and Iran. Wrestling supporters have also launched a Web site, KeepOlympicWrestling.com.
“I’m optimistic we’re getting a proper hearing and that we can do the right things,” Scherr said. “But it’s a tough situation because we’re competing against seven other great sports. It’s an uphill climb. If we achieve it, it will be against the odds.”
Last Thursday at Alexandria’s Hayfield High, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) dropped in on the Gunston Wrestling Club’s practice to talk with wrestlers, coaches and parents about the sport’s ouster from the Olympics. The club was formed in 1992 by Hayfield Coach Roy Hill to give young wrestlers a forum to train outside the traditional high school season and includes students from more than a half-dozen northern Virginia schools.
“The participation is very extensive,” Moran said in a telephone interview. “We’ve got girls getting into wrestling now. These kids don’t get credit for it, but they come from all over northern Virginia and are working hard. These athletes are in great shape. The coaches are unpaid. There is no incentive in terms of professional career or individual compensation, which I find to be more in the spirit of the Olympics.”
Said Hill, a Hayfield graduate who wrestled at VMI: “Wrestling in the United States at the college level is on a tenuous basis, as it is. With the Olympic dream basically being washed away in one fell swoop, the fear is what repercussions would this have on our college wrestling?”