Wrestling grapples with the prospect of being counted out of the Olympic games

If the sport is not re-accepted into the Games it could be in peril

David Beckham holds the Olympic flame in London – we find out today which city will host in 2020. Photograph: Getty.

David Beckham holds the Olympic flame in London – we find out today which city will host in 2020. Photograph: Getty.

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 06:00

‘And the International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing that the Games of the 32nd Olympiad in 2020 are awarded to the city of _____”

Oh yes not long now until Jacques Rogge, in his last act as IOC president, will open the sealed envelope and slowly utter these historic words – greeted with one giant hurrah from the successful candidate city, and crushed silence from the other two.

Tokyo? Madrid? Istanbul? We’ll find out in this part of the world a little after 9pm, and by all accounts it will be a tense afternoon of voting in the Buenos Aires Hilton. What is certain is that there will be only one winner, which is a good thing, because nobody wants a consolation prize after missing out on the Olympics. No one will have died, but for the losers, it will feel that way.

All three cities and their respective governments will have spent countless hours and vast sums of money in the eight months of frantic lobbying. Although when it comes down to the vote, the 103 eligible IOC delegates won’t be swayed by why the candidate cities want the Olympics, but why the Olympics want the candidate city. There is a subtle yet crucial difference, and why any one of the three could walk away with the big prize. The IOC don’t do philanthropy. They just do what’s best for themselves.

The exact same goes for the equally tense round of voting back at Buenos Aires Hilton tomorrow afternoon, when the IOC must decide whether wrestling, squash or baseball-softball will join the 25 core Olympic sports in 2020.


Ancient Olympiad
If like me you can’t imagine the Olympics without wrestling then you’re not alone: it’s not just that wrestling featured back in the Ancient Olympiad, has been part of all the modern Games too (with the exception of 1900 in Paris), but because wrestling would struggle to survive without the Olympics, even if it would live on in the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Honky Tonk Man.

It’s nothing as drastic as say track and field being dropped from the Olympic programme for 2020, but for those closest to the sport, it must feel that way. My room-mate in college sophomore year happened to be on the wrestling team, and I’ll never forget his obsession with the sport, plus the fact that he trained far harder than any of us on the track and field team. He also made me sit through the film Vision Quest, featuring a young Matthew Modine, Linda Fiorentino, and a cameo by Madonna, and I still rate that as one of the best sporting dramas ever made (John Irving described it as “the truest novel about growing up since The Catcher in the Rye”).

Anyway, wrestling only has itself to blame for allowing its Olympic status to slip so perilously close to oblivion. When the IOC met in Lausanne back in February to discuss the 25 core sports for 2020, wrestling didn’t bother sending any representatives, most of whom heard the news about their sports’ sudden exclusion on the news.


Wake-up call
It was described by one wrestling official at the time as “the mother of all wake-up calls”, and with that they began wrestling back the hearts and minds of the IOC (two-time Olympic wrestling gold medal Armen Nazaryan from Bulgaria preferring the hunger-strike strategy).

The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (somehow shortened to FILA) elected a new president, Nenad Lalovic, a charismatic Serbian, and he has promised to increase drug testing, improve gender equality (dropping two men’s categories and adding two for women), and essentially jazz up their act.

Some of us will never know the difference between freestyle wrestling and the Greco-Roman style, nor which wrestler is actually winning the match until their arm is held aloft at the end.

But for the 177 national wrestling federations, almost all Government funded, tomorrow’s vote could be a matter of life or death, when the reality is wrestling may not survive without the television exposure and worldwide status that comes with the Olympics, or more importantly a slice of the great big IOC TV money pie.

That’s not saying squash and baseball-softball don’t deserve their place, too. Indeed squash has been patiently biding its time – the only sport of the three never to get a seat at the five-ringed circus. It missed out in 2005, and again in 2009 (when golf and rugby sevens somehow got the nod instead) and it may well be a case of third time lucky.


Elite prep sport
World Squash Federation (WSF) president Narayana Ramachandran is also jazzing up their act, innovating with glass courts in spectacular settings, using neon-coloured balls and score-detection technology, and claims his sport is now played in 185 countries.

Part of the appeal here is the simplicity (64 athletes, men and women, two courts, 25 officials), and better still it boasts full gender parity, a near zero doping problem and an ardent fan base. There is the perception of it being an elite prep sport, favoured by the idle rich, and it’s not exactly overflowing with marquee players, although all they are saying is give squash a chance.

What baseball-softball are saying is that they have the cultural and international significance to fit perfectly into the Olympic programme, played in 140 countries, with a wide youth base, and again gender equality.

But they’ve had their chance already. Baseball (men only) featured between 1992-2008, and softball (women only) between 1996-2008, the main reason it was axed being so many of the big headline names stayed away (due to a clash with the Major League season) and of course doping, with baseball’s history of turning two blind eyes to the problem. The recent 221-game ban for Alex Rodriguez has helped change that perception, but perhaps not soon enough for the IOC.

Again, there will only be one winner, at least for the time being, although for the losers, and if one of them happens to be wrestling, it could actually be the death of the sport.

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