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Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar said the IOC’s move is a big step forward. Photo: PTI (PTI)
Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar said the IOC’s move is a big step forward. Photo: PTI

Wrestling gets an Olympic reprieve

Wrestling will now compete with baseball/softball and squash for a place in the 2020 Games

New Delhi: Three months after it was dropped from the core group of 25 Olympic sports for the 2020 Games, wrestling is back in contention.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 15-member committee included wrestling in a shortlist of three sports that will fight it out for the lone spot for a discipline to be included for the 2020 Games.

Wrestling will compete with baseball/softball and squash for a place in the Games. The ruling bodies of the three sports will make presentations in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the entire IOC general assembly will vote on the decision. Karate, roller sport, wakeboarding and sport climbing and wushu were dropped from the initial list of eight sports under consideration.

The decision was taken at a meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, through several rounds of voting after the federations of the sports made their cases.

“This is great news," two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar said. “But we are not celebrating yet. We have a lot to do, but this is a big step forward."

Former wrestler and wrestling commentator Jagdish Kaliraman pointed out that the original decision to drop wrestling from the core list was taken by the 15 members of the executive committee, while the ballot for reinclusion will involve every member of the Olympic body.

“Most countries in the general assembly have a strong wrestling tradition," Kaliraman said, “most countries have had wrestling for hundreds of years, and I’m hopeful that our chances will be much better there."

The original move to cut wrestling from the Olympic program was widely criticized, but it did mobilize the sport’s supporters and administrators to come together and work out their differences in an effort to reverse the decision. Perhaps the most startling example of this camaraderie was seen on 14 May at the Grand Central Terminal in New York, when top wrestlers from the US, Iran, and Russia got together in a public spectacle to promote wrestling and raise awareness.

“That is the magic of the sport," Nenad Lalovic, wrestling governing body FILA’s new president had told AFP after the event. “We had fallen into a crisis, the federation was not strong and we were asleep, but everyone came together from all corners of the world and realised that united we could pull ourselves out of it. “Now we are wide awake."

Rapid changes were made to the sport’s structure to counter the IOC’s complaint that it had failed to modernize and that its rules were difficult to understand. FILA elected Lalovic as president after Raphael Martinetti resigned from the post following the Olympic snub. The 55-year-old from Serbia immediately drew up a plan to reform the sport’s governing structure, inducting notable former wrestlers in decision-making.

Some of the more complicated rules have already been scrapped, including repechage, which gives a second chance to a losing wrestler, and was exploited by Sushil Kumar to win his bronze at the 2008 Olympics, and by Yogeshwar Dutt for a bronze in the 2012 Olympics. Draws have been done away with, and the format of bouts have been changed from three two-minute rounds to two three-minute rounds to encourage more intense and uninterrupted fights. A commission has been formed to increase the the involvement of women, and the number of events for men and women for the World Championships and the 2016 Olympics have been adjusted to ensure equal participation. Changes to make the sport more spectator-friendly are also underway, including scrapping the awkward singlet wrestlers fight in in favour of sleek, fitted T-shirts and shorts.

“These are good changes," Kumar said, “and it shows that wrestling has the will to do better. And it should stay in the Olympics, because no other sport has that kind of Olympic tradition."

Wrestling made its first recorded appearance in 708 BC in the ancient Olympics, and has been part of every modern Olympics since the Games began in 1896, with one exception in 1900. It wasn’t surprising that it’s recent downfall also brought political backlash. Russian president Vladimir Putin said the sport’s removal was “unjustified" earlier this month. But whether all that support can save the sport from the Olympic drop will only be known in September.

“If we lose in September then the very next day we will begin the battle to regain our place in the Olympic Games," Lalovic said.

Of the two sports wrestling will compete with, baseball and softball have joined hands under a single body after the both were removed from the Olympics in a 2005 vote. They were last played in the 2008 Beijing Games. Squash has never been part of the Olympic programme despite three previous tries.

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