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Wrestling | Down on the mat

The decision to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Olympics shocked athletes. Now a fightback is brewing
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First Published: Wed, Feb 13 2013. 09 31 PM IST
Yogeshwar Dutt says they will fight to retain the sport in the Games. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Yogeshwar Dutt says they will fight to retain the sport in the Games. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Wrestling is about fighting, we are fighters, this will be a hard battle and we will give it everything,” says Yogeshwar Dutt, who won a bronze at the 2012 Olympics. The shock and dismay that spread across the wrestling community worldwide when the sport was dropped from the list of 25 core disciplines for the 2020 Olympics is being quickly replaced with a sense of urgency to gather forces and fight the decision.
Michael Novogratz, co-chairman of the US Wrestling Foundation that works for the sport’s development in the US, echoed Dutt’s attitude. “There’s a great adage,” he told Bloomberg, “don’t pick a fight with a wrestler, because you’re going to get your ass kicked.” The country’s national governing body, USA Wrestling, has also entered the fray, launching online campaigns against the decision. “This is a challenge for the entire wrestling community on the world level,” says USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender, “and USA Wrestling will give all its energy and resources to maintain our place in the Olympic programme.”
Wrestling will be put to the vote, along with seven other shortlisted disciplines—baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu. The world governing bodies of these sports will lobby with the 14-member executive board in May, and the board will select which sports to recommend for a vote that will involve all the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members at their 125th session in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Only one of these disciplines will make it to the 2020 Games.
That wrestling was even demoted like this has puzzled many of those involved in the sport and in the Olympic movement. Vitaly Mutko, sports minister of Russia, a wrestling powerhouse, told news agencies, “It’s hard to understand the IOC’s motives and we need to hear explanations.”
The vote to pare the sport from the Games was done by secret ballot, with the 14 members of the IOC’s executive participating. Five sports were considered for the cull, including modern pentathlon, canoeing, hockey and taekwondo. That these events were saved while wrestling got the drop has surprised many because wrestling is far more popular around the world. Modern pentathlon, the sport most heavily tipped to be dropped before the meeting, is seen as an anachronistic event that generates little interest. It combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting—the five skills required of a 19th century cavalry officer. At the 2012 London Games, modern pentathlon had competitors from 18 countries, and medallists from six. Wrestling was represented by athletes from 71 countries, one of the highest among all disciplines, with medallists from 29 countries.
“It’s all about lobbying,” says Manisha Malhotra, the CEO of Mittal Champions Trust, a not-for-profit organization that helps Olympic athletes with funding and expertise. She is also the chairperson for the International Boxing Association or Aiba’s Women’s Commission, which lobbied succesfully for women’s boxing to be included in the 2012 Games.
“It’s a completely political decision,” she says. “One of the 14 people involved in this vote was Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, who is the vice-president of the international governing body for modern pentathlon. Of course it was saved. There was nobody representing wrestling.” Samaranch Jr is also the son of a former IOC president. Wrestling’s international governing body, Fila, says it was not even aware that dropping the sport would be under consideration.
“There’s also a heavy Western Europe bias,” Malhotra says, “where wrestling is not that popular.” Seven of the 14 people who voted come from the region. The medal count for wrestlers from Western Europe at the London Games is a paltry four. The medals tally was headed by Russia, Japan, Iran, Azerbaijan, the US and Cuba. None of these countries is represented on the committee.
The wrestling community hopes that this bias will be negated when the full IOC committee votes in September. “That’s where we will have the power,” says former champion wrestler-turned-coach Jagdish Kaliraman. “We also have to wait and see who wins the right to host the 2020 Games. The host country gets a lot of lobbying clout.” Turkey’s capital Istanbul, Japan’s capital Tokyo and Spain’s capital Madrid are the three cities bidding for hosting rights. Japan is a wrestling power and Saori Yoshida, who has won a record 13 straight Olympic and world championship gold medals over 10 years, is the face of Tokyo’s campaign for the right to host the 2020 Games.
Wrestling has a rich Olympic history. It’s considered to be one of the oldest competitive sports along with track and field, and made its first recorded appearance in the ancient Olympics in Greece in 708 BC. It has been part of the modern Olympics programme since the event started in 1896, with one exception in 1900. It has governing bodies in 180 countries, and thrives on its fundamental nature, and the fact that very little infrastructure is needed for its practice.
“When you think of the Olympics, you think of wrestling,” says Sushil Kumar, India’s only double Olympic medallist in an individual sport, who won the second of his two medals, a silver, at the 2012 Games.
As a result, the backlash to the IOC’s decision has been severe. “When they decided to remove baseball in 2005, there was no reaction,” says Malhotra, “because not more than 20 countries play it. But wrestling? That’s a big mistake. The IOC is on the backfoot.”
Greek wrestling federation president Kostas Thanos said it was “sacrilege”.
“I don’t believe the decision will stand in the plenary session of the IOC in September,” he told Athens radio station Nova Sport FM. “Wrestling is a sport that is identified with the Olympics and we cannot throw away a symbol such as wrestling. The way they are going they may even remove the name Olympics.”
Bloggers and popular sports sites on the Internet too are having a field day, pulling down the more esoteric Olympic events like trampoline, dressage (“horse dancing. But do the horses collect medals? No!”), race walking, synchronized swimming (“water boarding would be preferable to this synchronized horror show”), and yes, modern pentathlon: “What’s next, combining paintball, cake decorating, Rock, Paper, Scissors, and speed walking?”
The battle has just begun.
The Olympics are a haven for esoteric sports.
Just begging to be ridiculed when it was introduced as a part of gymnastics in the 2000 Games, and that’s exactly what happened.
Mountain biking
Many feel it is redundant since BMX was introduced in 2008. BMX is like mountain biking on an artificial course.
Synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics
The subject of countless spoofs and jokes, both are meant for women only. Since the introduction of women’s boxing in 2012, all the other sports are played by both sexes. Both events are seen as remnants of a time when women were barred from other sports, and both stress on “feminine” aspects, including heavy make-up, while hiding the athletic demands.
The water is calm, the boats move languidly. No one watches.
Race walking
Walking at speed? Few sporting events can claim to be this boring.
Hammer throw
Part of the old track and field set-up, the least popular of the multiple throwing events.
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First Published: Wed, Feb 13 2013. 09 31 PM IST