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By Mike Finn
When the executive board of the International Olympic Committee announced in St. Petersburg, Russia, today that wrestling would remain in the running to earn at least provisional sport status for two Olympics after 2016, there were smiles among many in USA Wrestling.
But these leaders, some of which were former wrestlers themselves at the highest levels of international wrestling, all know that reaching their final goal — of keeping wrestling as a core Olympic sport — has a long way to go before the IOC Congress meets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 7-10, to determine the fate of wrestling in the Olympics.
COMPARING THE THREE SPORTS WITH REMAINING OLYMPIC DREAMS
“I feel like I did when I wrestled and won a semifinal match after being well prepared. Now we have to get ready for the finals,” said Stan Dziedzic, a former Olympic medalist and a ranking member of FILA, the international governing body which oversees international wrestling and has made radical changes since February when the IOC’s executive board announced that wrestling was not going to be included among the Olympics’ 25 core sports after the 2016 Games in Rio.
“We have a big job ahead of us and think as a sport we are ready for the challenge,” said Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling. “We know our sport belongs on the (Olympic) program and we’re going to do everything in our power to provide the best presentation in Buenos Aires.”
“We had a very favorable outcome but this is only the first step,” said Jim Scherr, the former World silver medalist and the former chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, who was one of five people representing FILA; one of eight sports requesting to be considered a provisional sport in the 2020 and 2024 Games.
“It’s been a very tense process since February,” said Scherr. “We must now convince the general membership that wrestling needs to remain on the international Olympic program.”
While the recent decision by the IOC’s executive board — an 8-6 decision on the first ballot — gave wrestling breathing room in FILA’s efforts to remain an Olympic sport, it added more confusion about the future in some ways. This is especially true from an American point of view with one of the other sports — baseball and softball combined — being considered is also a popular American sport. (The other sport is squash.)
Will that make it even tougher for USA Wrestling leaders to galvanize Americans to support wrestling — an original Olympic sport — over baseball, once called “America’s pastime”?
“We feel incredibly passionate that wrestling is the greatest sport known to man and we will not rest until every one of the IOC members at least hear our story,” said Bender. “One thing we do as wrestlers is compete and I don’t think our strategy is going to be a negative one towards the other sports. But we will not be shy about speaking about the positive attributes of our sport and the relevancy we bring towards the Olympic movement.”
Also, the question of wrestling becoming a provisional sport could be a moot point, based on an earlier vote that will be taken by 101 IOC members in Buenos Aires in September.
“There are two votes that will happen in Buenos Aires at the IOC general assembly,” said Scherr. “The first vote will be to ratify the IOC recommendation of the 25 core sports. Wrestling is not one of those 25 recommended sports.
“If that vote is not ratified, wrestling could remain as a core sport.
“Regardless of the outcome of that, wrestling is now on the short list as a provisional sport that would be selected for the 2020 or 2024 Games. If we are not successful on the first vote, and we are successful on the second vote, we would have to work over that length of time to convince the IOC that wrestling should be a core sport.”
In addition to naming Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic as its new president, FILA also has changed up its board and the sport’s rules. Some former female wrestlers are now on its board. And the most notable of the rules changes is that a pair of three-minute periods and a cumulative score will now determine matches. The leadership feels this will only help in making the sport more fan and TV-friendly.
“The new rule changes have created more activity, more excitement and more scoring,” said Scherr. “We believe the new rules will remove passivity and stalling in wrestling. Wrestlers will determine the outcome of the match, rather than an (overtime-deciding) ball pull.
“The new rules will make it a much better television sport and a much more acceptable sport for the IOC.”
Scherr also believes FILA is answering the gender equity problem that existed under the leadership of former long-time FILA president Raphael Martinetti, who resigned in February.
“A number of things FILA did to promote gender equity within the sport was very well received by the IOC executive board,” said Scherr. “We will have three women on the FILA bureau and have mandated that one of the vice presidents must be a woman.”
Scherr also pointed out that FILA will recommend adding two women’s weights to the current four weights. This will be finalized later. And their proposal would likely be structured where those additional two weights are removed from men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman, dropping the number of weights in those styles from seven to six.
All the leaders of USA Wrestling believe that the spirit of wrestling fits the ideal of the International Olympic Committee.
“We need to show the merits of our sport to the rest of the world and not attack our competition,” said Dziedzic. “The fact that two wrestlers of equal size with nothing but the wit and their will determines who’s best.
“If we can send that message to the world, I believe we will prevail in this challenge.”