SAVED: IOC votes to keep wrestling in 2020


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Tom Brands called the decision on Feb. 12 “worse than death” when the International Olympic Committee dropped wrestling from the 2020 Olympics that day. Wrestlers around the world saw it as a wake-up call. Dan Gable viewed it as a call to action and responded by stepping his foot on the line.

In essence, a seven-month wrestling match followed. FILA, the sport’s international governing body, collaborated with some of wrestling’s most influential figures to spearhead an intense effort to save wrestling’s position as an Olympic sport. Gable, the man who almost never loses, was one of those who led the charge.

On Sunday, Gable and members of the Iowa wrestling community sat in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and watched the IOC vote wrestling back into the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games. Screams of excitement filled the Feller Club Room. Wrestlers and fans alike celebrated around the world.

Gable cracked a smile. He had won. Wrestling had won. Wrestling was back in the Olympics.

“The presentations from our people were outstanding,” Gable said. “All of the buildup said we were probably going to be in. But there’s no more probably. We are.”

The fight

Much of what led the IOC to drop wrestling stemmed from three major issues: internal governance, the sport’s rules, and gender equity.

“All the words and wisdom that came to me was that wrestling had been noncompliant,” Gable said. “Wrestling needs to shape up. Wrestling needs to do some things.”

The internal governance issue was the first to be corrected. Just days after wrestling was dropped, then-FILA President Raphaël Martinetti resigned after a no-confidence vote. The FILA Bureau immediately named Nenad Lalovic acting president at its meeting in Phuket, Thailand.

Lalovic, a 55-year-old from Serbia, took action quickly. With him as the leader, FILA made a near-complete overhaul of its system. Women and athletes in the sport now have a bigger role in decision-making. The rules are easier to understand and make the sport more fun. More aggressive wrestlers were awarded for their efforts.

FILA also added two more weight classes for women, giving the international styles — Men’s and Women’s Freestyle along with Greco-Roman — six weight classes each.

These changes were made when the entire FILA membership met at an Extraordinary Congress on May 18 in Moscow. Not long after, on May 29, the IOC Executive Board met in St. Petersburg, Fla., and voted three sports — wrestling, squash, and a baseball-softball bid — to progress to the 125th Session of the IOC in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which took place Sunday.

Alongside these changes were more efforts and contributions from the outside. Fans and sports pundits mocked the IOC, calling the dropping a huge mistake. T-shirts were made and sold by the truckloads. The hashtag “#SaveOlympicWrestling” trended nationally on Twitter in spurts throughout the seven months.

USA Wrestling, the governing body for the sport in the states, created the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling. Members led the Keep Olympic Wrestling effort in the United States.

“It was nonstop since the decision,” Gable said about the effort. “If anybody let up at all, there was enough people who could tell, and there would be a phone call. The person who was maybe letting up would say, ‘You’re right. Let’s finish strong.’ “

The vote

All three sports presented their case before the IOC Session on Sunday. Each had 20 minutes to persuade the IOC that their sport belonged in the 2020 Olympics — which is slated to take place in Tokyo after another IOC vote took place on Saturday.

Wrestling’s presentation panel included Lalovic, athlete Carol Huynh, Vice President of the France Wrestling Federation Lise Legrand, athlete Daniel Igali, and Jim Scherr, a former executive director of USA Wrestling.

The panel as a whole gave a solid presentation without any hiccups — “If there is one thing you remember from this presentation, it’s that wrestling is new in virtually every way,” Scherr said five minutes in. The videos displayed were eye-popping and, to some, emotional. One showed the importance of the Games with respect to the future generation of wrestlers who aspire to be Olympic champions.

“Obviously, it’s huge, or there wouldn’t be a lot of people here,” Iowa’s Derek St. John said. “It’s big for the future of wrestling from the college level, all the way down to little kids and all the way up to the Olympic Games. It’s huge for the future of the sport.”

Igali, a 2000 Olympic champion from Canada, delivered a heartfelt testimony of how wrestling saved his life. Huynh, a gold-medal winner in the 2008 Games, talked about how the sport has worked towards gender equality — she even talked of how a women’s Greco-Roman division might be added, pending interest.

At the end of the presentation, the IOC asked a series of questions. All the members who answered responded confidently. They never wavered or stuttered.

“Thank you for this opportunity to save our sport of wrestling,” Lalovic said during the presentation. ”Today is the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport. And believe me, we feel the weight of that history.”

The IOC then put it to a vote. Any one sport needed to garner 48 of the 95 available votes to be elected into the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games.

Wrestling ousted the other two handily, collecting 49 votes to baseball-softball’s 24 and squash’s 22.
“Today, we have what wrestling has earned,” Iowa’s associate head wrestling coach Terry Brands said. “And we have earned that we are the world’s oldest and greatest sport and the committee proved it. They were outstanding. Very impressed.”

Moving forward

They aren’t done yet. Gable and Terry Brands both stated that Sunday’s victory was just another step in the right direction for the sport of wrestling.

“The relief is in the fact that we have recognized, we have fixed as much as we can today,” Brands said. “And we’re going to do more tomorrow and the next day moving on.”

Gable, a member of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, preached the committee’s ultimate goal after hearing the good news.

“It’s really where we go from here to make this sport a top-five core sport,” Gable said. “We still have a long ways to go.”

The vote has kept wrestling in the Olympics through 2024. It isn’t considered a “core sport” — at least not yet.

But the reversal of that decision in February speaks volumes about the wrestling community. It’s been named the biggest win in the sport’s history. The IOC acknowledged that, and it can’t wait to see how much further the sport can progress.

“I would like to offer my congratulations to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge in a release. “Wrestling has shown great passion and resilience in the last few months.

“… We are pleased with their reaction and happy to have wrestling on the Olympic Programme in 2020 and 2024.”

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