Couldn’t this have been accomplished by a sitdown last winter? If wrestling simply needed a makeover to retain its historic position in the Games, couldn’t its Olympic overlords have given the international federation a list of required changes and let its officials rassle with them? Did the whole process need to take seven months, involve four votes, and turn four sports on their heads just to maintain the status quo?
That’s what happened in Buenos Aires Sunday morning when the International Olympic Committee decided to keep wrestling on the summer program instead of reinstating baseball and softball or adding squash. For most sports fans, there shouldn’t have been any question about that. Wrestling was one of the cornerstones of the ancient Games and has been on the menu all but once since they were revived in 1896.
That’s likely why its supporters assumed that the sport had the same permanent status as track and field and swimming and why they were blindsided in February when the IOC’s executive board recommended that it be dropped after the next Games in Rio de Janeiro. So they mounted a passionate and persuasive lobbying campaign at the same time that FILA, which runs the sport worldwide, pushed through a number of changes, from a new president to more opportunities for women on the mat and off, to tweaks that make the competition less confusing and more watchable.
“Wrestling is new in virtually every way,” Jim Scherr, the former Olympic wrestler and USOC executive director who chaired the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, told the members before the balloting.
While this was a triumph for grapplers everywhere, particularly in the States, they’ll have to fight the battle again since the sport only is assured of staying on the program through 2024. What was telling about Sunday’s vote is that the members didn’t include wrestling among the Games’ 25 core sports in their opening ballot and that nearly half of them didn’t want it on the program at all. Only 49 voters, one more than a majority, voted for wrestling while 24 chose baseball/softball and 22 opted for squash.
The original purpose behind all this was “renewing and renovating” the program, replacing stale sports with fresh ones that would appeal to younger fans. That’s why the executive board drew up a list of a half-dozen newbies — squash, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding, and the Chinese martial art of wushu — before selecting squash as an option. So it was head-scratching that the final choices for the full session also included keeping everything the same or reinstating two sports that the Lords had dropped after 2008.
The IOC’s program commission has a by-the-numbers list of 39 criteria, from “universality” to gender equity to media coverage, that theoretically determine which sports belong in the Games. Some criteria, though, carry more weight than others. If a sport televises poorly, if it’s expensive to stage, if it has doping problems, if it requires hundreds of competitors, if its best players won’t participate, then its five-ringed status figures to be in jeopardy.
The criteria, though, don’t provide answers to the big-picture question. Does the menu have the right mix of offerings? How many team sports should there be? How many aquatics? Ball sports? Combatives? Do you need boxing, judo, taekwondo, and wrestling? How do golf and rugby sevens, the new additions for 2016, enhance the program?
If squash already had been bypassed twice in the last eight years, what made it attractive enough to be included now? If baseball and softball already had been deemed expendable, what made them indispensable now? Was all it took just a streamlined tournament and a combined venue? That change could have been made after Beijing. Now that Tokyo has landed the 2020 Games and a new IOC president will be elected Tuesday, baseball and its female version still could be added later.
What happened Sunday was that a sport that had grown soporific was shaken by the shoulders.
“We are aware of our mistakes, they will not happen again,” FILA president Nenad Lalovic promised the members. “We have to update our sport, like every other sport, every day.”
That’s a message for every other pursuit on the Olympic program, too, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been given behind closed doors in Lausanne a year ago.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.