Last week, the International Olympic Committee shocked the sports world when its executive board voted to eliminate wrestling from the core 25 sports in competition in the Summer Olympics, after the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero. For a sport that was so important in the early, ancient years of the Olympics and that had appeared in every Games except for Paris in 1900 in the modern era, it was a head-scratching decision. Wrestling received eight of fourteen total votes, losing out to field hockey and the modern pentathlon in the final round of voting.
The ramifications were immediate. The head of FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, stepped down after receiving a vote of no-confidence from the group’s own executive board. Valentin Yordanov, a champion at the 1996 Atlanta games and current Bulgarian wrestling federation president, returned his gold medal in protest. Voices from every end of the spectrum, from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to writer John Irving, each former wrestlers, chimed in with op-eds. A group, the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, was founded to lobby the IOC in hopes that wrestling can make its way back into the Olympic program.
The decision making process is not over for the IOC. In May, the board will convene once more to determine which sports to consider for inclusion in the vacant spot. Wrestling will be a candidate, along with baseball, softball, wakeboarding, squash, and martial arts sports like karate and wushu. If it is selected, a final vote will take place in September. Despite the chance to be put to another vote, few with knowledge of the inner workings of the IOC are hopeful about wrestling’s chances.
Just how the IOC came to the decision has become a subject of controversy. The Olympics have become, in recent years, a business first and foremost, inking a broadcasting deal for $4.38 billion with NBC, along with other sales of broadcast rights to networks in other countries. Bidding wars between cities for the right to host the games are expensive, and the benefits of holding the Olympics are arguably outweighed by the costs and over-building that accompany the preparation. For years there have been both charges of and evidence for corruption within the IOC ranks, from bribery in the leadup to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to resignations within the executive board over accusations of buying votes. The board is made up of 15 people, none of whom are from countries with big wrestling traditions like Russia, Iran, or the United States. One of the board members, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. of Spain, is the son of a former IOC head and the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, which is a glaring conflict of interest in light of that sport’s inclusion in the final round of elimination voting. For all the IOC’s talk about the transformative powers of sport, the fact remains that it is a business organization run not by current or former athletes, but by influential businessmen, and one that essentially has a monopoly on international competition.
For all the talk of the backroom dealings of the secretive IOC, the ultimate tragedy about the removal of wrestling is that it takes away the Olympic hopes of many athletes. In the 2012 London Games, 71 nations competed in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, with 29 of those countries taking home medals in competition. In comparison, only 26 countries competed in the modern pentathlon. Though the most successful countries historically have been superpowers like Russia and the United States, many smaller and poorer nations like Iran, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan have found success on the international stage. Nate Silver found that, statistically, wrestling presents countries with the best statistical chance to medal. It’s the best chance many athletes have to shine in the sport they love.
Wrestling isn’t a sport without its issues. Some of its rules at the international level, especially those for overtime, are convoluted and confusing. The leadership changes at FILA were just the latest in a series of poor management decisions, the biggest of which was failing to properly lobby to keep wrestling in the games during the IOC’s voting period. The fact remains, though, that the 2020 Games will likely be without one of its foundational competitions, and everyone, from wrestlers to fans, will be deprived of one of the most entertaining, primal, and exciting sports in the world.