Keeping Score

How Can Wrestling Fight For Its Olympic Survival?

The International Olympic Committee stunned the sports world by dropping wrestling from the 2020 program. Is the ancient sport gone for good?

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The eliminating rounds of the Greco-Roman Wrestling events take place at Empress Hall, Earl's Court, during the London Olympics, Aug. 4, 1948.

Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo was silent on the other end of the phone line — shocked, really, beyond belief. He was about to head to church near his home in the Phoenix area Tuesday morning when I relayed the news: the International Olympic Committee had voted wrestling, the sport in which he won his gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, off of the 2020 Olympic program. Cejudo’s Olympic win, in the 121-lb. weight class, was one of the memorable highlights of the Beijing Games. The son of illegal immigrants, Cejudo proudly draped the American flag around his shoulders, running around the Beijing hall, crying. He was a living, grappling symbol of the American dream.

Now, Cejudo says he’s almost in tears for a very different reason. “Is this an April Fool’s joke or something?” he asks. Sadly, I tell him, it’s not. The IOC’s executive board needed to drop one sport from the 2020 program.

(Why can’t IOC just add another sport and keep wrestling, you ask? Because the organization values exclusivity and clubbiness and self-importance. There are 26 sports now. Would it hurt anyone or compromise the Olympics or be a huge economic burden to have 27 sports on the summer program? No.)

Instead, wrestling — quite possibly the world’s oldest sport, a sport with an Olympic tradition going back to ancient times — gets the boot. Going into this executive board vote, modern pentathlon, the eccentric sport that combines swimming, fencing, running, equestrian and shooting, seemed most at risk. But political connections may save modern pentathlon. As the AP reports:

Klaus Schormann, president of [modern pentathlon] governing body UIPM, lobbied hard to protect his sport’s Olympic status and it paid off in the end.

“We have promised things and we have delivered,” he said after Tuesday’s decision. “That gives me a great feeling. It also gives me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up.”

Modern pentathlon also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president who is a UIPM vice president and member of the IOC board.

“We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others,” Samaranch told the AP. “We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives. Tradition is one of our strongest assets, but we are also a multi-sport discipline that produces very complete people.”

Modern pentathlon had competitors from 26 countries in the London Olympics. Wrestling brought athletes from 71 countries to those Games. While the clamoring for softball’s Olympic reinstatement has been loudest in the United States, which has dominated that sport, expect a more global protest for wrestling. Yes, the U.S. has won 124 medals in wrestling. But the former Soviet Union won 116 medals and Russia, 51. In a statement, FILA — wrestling’s world governing body — said the sport is contested in 180 countries. FILA notes that wrestling is “the national sport in a fair amount of them and the only possibility for athletes to represent their country at the Olympic Games, thus contributing to their universality.”

(MORE: A U.S. Shocker On The Wrestling Mat)

The IOC’s decision also upset Iran. “This will be a huge blow to our country’s sports,” said Mohammad Ali-Abadi, the head of the Iranian national Olympic committee, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency. A wrestling world cup event is scheduled in Tehran on Feb. 21-22: American Jordan Burroughs beat his rival, Sadegh Goudarzi of Iran, for the 163-lb. gold medal in London. Wrestling represents the Olympic ideal. It’s a sport in which athletes from sparring nations can compete. One of the few things that the U.S. and Iran can agree on: dropping wrestling hurts.

So what now? Wrestling still has a shot. The sport will now compete with baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and wushu — a martial arts sport — for a spot on the 2020 Olympic program.  That final vote will take place at the IOC session, or general meeting, in September. “Today’s decision is not final,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, via the AP. “The session is sovereign and the session will make the final decision.” (Yes, “the session” is “sovereign.” Think the IOC oozes self-importance?)

It’s doubtful that wrestling, having just been taken off the Olympic program, will return right away. The sport’s most fervent supporters, however, don’t see it that way. “I can’t imagine an Olympic games without wrestling,” says Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, who won four national championships at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medal in 2004. “That’s not an option. We have time here to show the IOC they made the wrong decision. It’s up to us and the Iranians and Russians and everyone else to help them know this.”

American Patricia Miranda, who won a bronze medal at the first women’s Olympic wrestling competition in 2004, sees the IOC’s decision as an opportunity for her sport. “This can be a kick in the butt for the U.S.,” says Miranda, who now practices law in California. She thinks that one reason the IOC may have cut wrestling is that Olympic organizers prefer sports that are strong on both the men’s and women’s sides. “In the U.S., there has not been a serious effort to develop women’s wrestling at the college and international levels,” says Miranda. As a result, she says, many countries haven’t invested in women’s wrestling either. “The fact that we haven’t done it sets the tone,” says Miranda. “Countries think that if the U.S. hasn’t gotten serious about women’s wrestling, it’s acceptable for them not to be serious about it.”

A few hours after hearing and digesting the news — and going to church — Cejudo calls back. “Oh man, I’m so freaking disappointed,” he says. “I’m still heartbroken. But I’m already strategizing what we can do.” Cejudo sees social media as the key: with six hours of its creation, over 10,000 people signed onto the “Save Olympic Wrestling” page on Facebook. On Change.org, over 10,000 people signed 24 petitions supporting the sport. “If wrestling isn’t in the Olympics, so many kids out there — poor kids like me — are going to have a chance to chase that dream,” Cejudo says. “With all the weight classes, wrestling gives us little guys the opportunity to shine. You don’t have to be LeBron. You don’t have to be nine-feet tall.”

Cejudo, who’s pursuing a business degree at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, says he’s tired. He planned to take a nap, but doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep much now. “Awww, man,” he says, sighing in an obvious expression of his disbelief. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

MORE: Women’s Wrestling – Grappling For Progress

52 comments
segesta65
segesta65

Look, I love tennis and golf, but those should never be Olympic sports. I don't care about wrestling, but it's a classic Olympic sport, like discus and javelin.

But the Olympics are hopelessly corrupt anyway.

MichaelBecker
MichaelBecker like.author.displayName 1 Like

Just another reason I stopped watching most of the Olympic telecasts a couple of decades ago.

Rythmic gymnastics?  Synchronized swimming & diving?  Basketball - both men's and women's???  Tennis?  The Olympics is becoming dominataed by non-sports or by the proliferation of professional teams.

This is poster stupid.

JeromeRaya
JeromeRaya

@ApoloOhno @TIME Yes please. Golf..SERIOUSLY?

Karina_3399
Karina_3399

@ApoloOhno Wrestling can't go! I don't watch it much, but it doesn't deserve to go. It's historic & people work hard to become good at it.

spdmainz
spdmainz

He was a living ... symbol of the American dream RT “@TIME: Can wrestling fight for its Olympic survival? | http://t.co/xae4NiIk” #Ringen

spd_hassloch
spd_hassloch

@spdmainz das ist halt die Kommerzialisierung des Sports. Nach 2000 Jahren #Ringen zu streichen, hoffentlich stoppt das jemand !!!

spdmainz
spdmainz

Wird international diskutiert RT “@TIME: Can wrestling fight for its Olympic survival? | http://t.co/xae4NiIk” #Ringen @ASVMainz88

fitzjw
fitzjw

@ApoloOhno @time wrong for the IOC to get rid of wrestling! Ancient sport has stood the test of time! Do the RIGHT thing IOC...REINSTATE!!

ApoloOhno
ApoloOhno

@fitzjw agreed. 100% I can think of a few others I'd choose before Wrestling.

DiFatih
DiFatih

@ApoloOhno @fitzjw all heard that except previous FILA president

fitzjw
fitzjw

@ApoloOhno isn't that the truth!

TALKS_abhi
TALKS_abhi

@time lest hope for it. Why shouldn't it be is the question.?

djmagichef
djmagichef

@ApoloOhno @TIME If u look at it like a dumbass I guess......totally flippin rediculous!!!

ApoloOhno
ApoloOhno

@djmagichef wrestling should always be there. Always. Too much history in Olympics not to be.

djmagichef
djmagichef

@ApoloOhno I don't see the logic in it. Some Athletes train their whole lives in hopes of one day achieving this one goal.Then maybe WWE LOL

mikeyakatnt
mikeyakatnt

@TIME It really shouldn't, Wrestling is such a intense sport. More intense than any other sport I ever trained for during my HS years

retep971
retep971

Shame on the IOC, the sport goes back to the ancient Olympics “@TIME: Can wrestling fight for its Olympic survival? | http://t.co/kGT2kbjI

Kimmbre
Kimmbre

@ApoloOhno @TIME Depends on what way you look at it!

EllisLuo
EllisLuo

@TIME it would better quit.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Eliminating wrestling from the Olympics?  Quite simply absurd.

Shame on the IOC.

zaglossus
zaglossus like.author.displayName 1 Like

On the contrary, wrestling, rather than being a candidate for Olympic elimination, should be one of the "core sports" whose protection is sancrosanct. Sports like track and field, swimming, gymnastics, weight lifting and a few others are in this elite category. Sports like equestrian, sailing, which are not "athletic" are not. Nor is basketball, despite its athleticsm and international popularity. Unlike wrestling where an Olympic medal represents the apex, in basketball it's probably an NBA championship.

Don't add anymore sports, please. There are already enough in the Summer Games. One watching TV 24X7 can't follow them all.

In the end, I believe money will pass hands or a deal will be made, the IOC will get the message of the unpopularity and unreasonable of this and wrestlling will not be excluded in 2016, 2020 or beyond.

Rboblee
Rboblee like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This probably confirms rumors that Olympic pole-dancing will be confirmed as an Event for the next Summer and Winter Olympics:  It is all about Nielsen ratings and sponsorships. And wet T-shirts.  Perhaps, the wrestling community will propose mud wrestling to compete against pole-dancing at the next IOC meeting?

allung89
allung89

@TIME they should also add baseball and softball to the list as well.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe like.author.displayName 1 Like

You can add bad mitten, trampoline, sailing, and Judo. Actually, judo could be rolled into wrestling since it's simply wrestling standing up.

I'd love to see all sports in the Olympics. I love the discipline and commitment displayed in all events. But it doesn't seem right to drop wrestling.

zaglossus
zaglossus

@mtngoatjoe All sports would just be too many events. There's room to expand in the Winter Games. The Summer Games are full up.

richard40
richard40

You just touched on an interesting solution.  Why not just move wressling, and some other endangered sports, to the winter olympics.  Any indoor sport can be easily moved to the winter olympics.  The only sports that must be in the summer olympics are those that must be outside, and need warm weather.

CoachUp
CoachUp

RT @seanmgregory: an emotional conversation with Olympic gold medalist @henrycejudo on wrestling's Olympic elimination http://t.co/Bq2il2nl

Fla4Me
Fla4Me like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Insane.  The "core" events should be the traditional events.  The events that gave us the Olympics to start with.  The fluff events and anything with a professional league should be rotated in and out.  ie tennis, golf, bicycle motorcross, tae kwon do, beach vollyball, basketball etc.

JamesRamsey
JamesRamsey

The proud sport of wrestling has been removed the the list of sports present in the 2020 Games and I find that unacceptable.  It is a sport of international competition with a level of fairness that can't be matched.  You need only to be in shape and practice wrestling to compete.  No fancy equipment, no bag of clubs or gloves or balls required.  Leave the horses alone and strip off the face mask.  Wrestling dates back to our greco-roman days, days before our modern olympic games.  It is the earliest form of competition and deserves to stay in the olympics.  Please help the world by keeping this sport in the Olympic Games

Petri47
Petri47 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TIME The IOC drops wrestling but let professionals compete with soccer, basket, etc. it should be an amateurs competition only.

drude84
drude84 like.author.displayName 1 Like

“@TIME: Something the U.S. and Iran can agree on: Dropping wrestling from the Olympics hurts | http://t.co/nvrMeTgi

_TylerThePirate
_TylerThePirate

@TIME @APPropst Why would we drop the oldest sport in the Olympics when we could remove a sport that has a lower fan turnout/lower revenue?

DURBEM
DURBEM

@TIME "Autoridades e uma Parte da Sociedade Teima em se Deixar Enganar e se Auto Destruir por Esta Festa Sombria e sem Limites!"

DaBeeb
DaBeeb

@t_ryan_arnold! :( @TIME: Something the U.S. and Iran can agree on: Dropping wrestling from the Olympics hurts | http://t.co/YIrU5cHK

t_ryan_arnold
t_ryan_arnold

@DaBeeb @TIME that is such BS. So many wrestling programs in high school and college look to the olympics as their reason d'etre.

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