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Iowa City wrestling community condemns Olympics decision, vows to fight

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | FEBRUARY 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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Donovan Doyle goes to wrestling practice every day. He admits wrestling, with its intense practices and weight-cutting demands, is “a difficult lifestyle to live.” But he worked his way onto the starting lineup of wrestling powerhouse Iowa City West — the only freshman to do so this season.

Though it’s a long way off, Doyle has vague goals of wrestling on a truly big stage when he’s older. So do almost all of his teammates, West head coach Mark Reiland said.

But they might never get that chance.

In a shocking move, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted Tuesday morning to remove wrestling from the Olympics in 2020.

The IOC reviewed all 26 of its “core” summer sports, looking at 39 criteria, such as ticket sales and TV ratings. After the review, the executive committee voted wrestling out of the program. It will be forced to join seven other sports — including baseball, softball, and karate — in lobbying to be included in the 2020 games.

“As a kid who works at it every day, you want to think you can wrestle at that level,” Doyle said. “But all that’s taken away if they go through with this … It just won’t be an option anymore. You could be the best wrestler in the world, but you’re still done competing after college.”

‘There seemed to be a failure’ in leadership

“It’s worse than death,” Hawkeye wrestling coach Tom Brands said. “Because you can’t control death. I feel like we could have controlled this to some degree, get ahead of it a little bit. There were warning signs in the past.”

Brands, a former Olympic gold-medalist, hesitated to assign blame for the situation at a press conference on Tuesday. But he hinted that rule changes in recent years, meant to make the sport faster and more viewer-friendly, cost wrestling some of its originality.

Some big names in wrestling were also critical of FILA, the international wrestling federation. Wrestling icon and former Hawkeye head coach Dan Gable said his suspicions about the politics involved in the decision were confirmed during a Tuesday conference call with the top U.S. FILA representative.

“The executive committee of 15 people made the decision that we should cut wrestling, because it least affected that particular group of people,” Gable told The Daily Iowan. “There were no ties to wrestling in that group.

“And that’s where our sport went wrong. With no ties to wrestling, it’s pretty easy to say let’s go this route. That’s what happened. Our leadership providing information to the top [Olympic] leadership, there seemed to be a failure there.”

One such connection seemed to help the modern pentathlon, a sport many considered more likely to be removed. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. is a member of the IOC and the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.

“Some of these other sports that were saved that were on the cutting block, they even say that they did their job politically,” Brands said. “They did their job smoothing things out. I don’t know if wrestling did that. I don’t know if it’s arrogance on our part.”

‘This is obviously going to hurt the sport’

Cory Connell is the head wrestling coach at City High and a former Hawkeye wrestler. He vividly remembers Brands winning a gold-medal match in 1996. He said it is what made him want to compete at high levels of the sport.

“It’s inspired so many people in our sport,” Connell said. “I think [losing the Olympics] will hurt all the way down to the grass roots. Will there be an initial big hit? Probably not. But little kids right now won’t get to see someone like [2012 American gold-medalist] Jordan Burroughs wrestle and want to be like him.”

Almost everyone involved in the sport is concerned about its future without the Olympics. Donovan Doyle said plenty of his peers already gravitate toward sports like football or mixed-martial arts as they grow older because they offer more post-college opportunities. Without the Olympics as a carrot to dangle, wrestling would lose one of its dwindling attractions.

“We don’t have a professional sport,” Gable said. “This is our highest level. This will damage people. It will damage the youth. It’s going to lower the mentality of a lot of people.”

It could also cost Iowa City a significant economic boost every four years. Iowa City held the U.S. Olympic Trials last April, and officials estimated its economic impact was $5.6 million. More than 14,000 fans attended. Eighty-two percent of those fans were from outside Johnson County.

The event went so well that the Iowa City/Coralville area is set to place another bid to host the 2016 trials, and local officials hoped that the area could become the regular site for the event.

Iowa senior Matt McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion, competed in the Trials. He said he often “fantasized” about wrestling in the Olympics when he was younger.

“This is obviously going to hurt the sport,” he said. “It’s going to have a serious impact. Will it ruin wrestling? Absolutely not. Will it make it harder to bring people in? Maybe.”

#SaveOlympicWrestling

“Common wisdom is that once you’re off the agenda, you’re not going to get back on it,” Gable said. “But maybe good education and good information will show [the IOC] where we’re at as a sport and not where they think we’re at.”

That’s the hope for wrestling’s leaders. The Associated Press said the sport’s return to the Olympics so soon after its elimination is “extremely unlikely.”

But wrestlers insist they aren’t done just yet. McDonough said he was confident the situation would be resolved, that the wrestling community would be outspoken enough to persuade the IOC it made a mistake.

The Twitter hashtag “#SaveOlympicWrestling” trended nationally for hours Tuesday afternoon. Connell said he was heartened to see floods of Facebook postings about the sport.

The IOC will host an assembly this September in which it will decide the 26th Olympic sport. If Brands has his way, it will be an easy decision.

“We’ve got to fight,” he said. “We’ve got to right a wrong, because it is a wrong. You can talk about the pureness of sport, and you can say that’s drama, or Romeo and Juliet, or whatever. But it’s true.”

“It’s true in the sport of wrestling.”


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