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, 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