Can One Man Save Olympic Wrestling?

Nenad Lalovic, the new head of wrestling’s international federation, is trying to bring the sport back to the Olympics

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Adam Golfer for TIME

Nenad Lalovic, President of FILA, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

On the morning of May 14, the day before the U.S., Russian and Iranian national wrestling teams squared off at Grand Central Terminal, the meet’s organizers held a luncheon at the United Nations. As the sun beamed from the East River into the Delegate’s Dining Room, a large man dressed in a dark suit, a pair of black glasses pincered on his face, clomped to the podium. “The passion of the sport of wrestling is the same passion that lives in this building,” Nenad Lalovic said in a rolling baritone voice. “The United Nations brings the world together, country by country, religions, cultures and history. Wrestling is the United Nations of sport.”

Since the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted in February to drop wrestling from the 2020 games, this has been one of the wrestling community’s main arguments: that the sport, which is popular all over the world, can bring together even the most adversarial countries. The following day, wrestlers put that argument on display, as Iran beat the U.S. 6-1 in an exhibition match in front of hundreds of cheering Iranian-Americans who came to see the country’s national team in its first appearance in the U.S. in a decade.

Despite the optics of international unity, wrestling’s path back into the Olympics is far from certain. This week, the IOC executive board meets in St. Petersburg, Russia to hear presentations from eight sports (including wrestling) vying for one open slot in the 2020 games. On Wednesday night, the board will announce the shortlist of sports it will recommend to the full Olympic Committee meeting in September in Buenos Aires.

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The man chosen to lead wrestling’s effort is a jovial Serbian businessman who was contemplating retirement before the IOC’s decision thrust him into the spotlight. Hardly known outside of a small faction of the wrestling community just a few months ago, he now finds himself leading the sport through perhaps its largest existential crisis in its nearly 3,000 year history.

When the news broke that the IOC had voted to drop wrestling, the bureau members of the international wrestling federation (known as FILA) already had a scheduled meeting in Phuket, Thailand. They rushed to the meeting site, and in the first order of business, FILA president Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland asked for a vote of confidence. After the bureau members voted him down by one vote, Martinetti resigned. In the next order of business, they chose Lalovic, a bureau member from Belgrade, as the acting president.

In many ways, Lalovic is an unlikely candidate to lead wrestling into the next big phase in the sport’s evolution. For starters, he was never a wrestler–Lalovic played tennis for more than three decades. Yet he possessed other experiences that have proven instrumental to lead wrestling through the current crisis.

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Lalovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1958 and grew up all over the world. His father, Milos Lalovic, was the Yugoslavian ambassador to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, Belgium and Switzerland. Lalovic started school in Tunisia and finished high school in Geneva, before returning to Belgrade to study mechanical engineering. In college he started a travel agency, then after graduating owned a restaurant and tennis club and ran a factory that made shampoo.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Lalovic’s son began wrestling at a small club coached by one of Lalovic’s childhood friends. Serbia’s sports organizations were in shambles, and the coach asked Lalovic to get involved in rebuilding the country’s wrestling federation. Lalovic became president of the Serbian wrestling federation in 2000, and helped organize the first junior European Championships in 2002, followed by the senior European Championships in Belgrade the following year. He was elected to FILA’s bureau in 2006.

Lalovic combines a businessman’s eye for fixing problems with the natural diplomacy that comes from being the son of a career diplomat. A tall, beefy man, he slaps shoulders in a warm, welcoming manner, and while he can be very serious when necessary, many sentences end with a deep guttural laugh. He says he learned from his father not only the importance of listening, but also trying to learn something from everyone. As he has traveled the world, he has learned more about what wrestling means in different countries, which is vital to forging consensus. FILA’s bureau has nearly two-dozen members from countries as diverse as France, Qatar, Guatemala, Russia and Palau.

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On his recent visit to New York, Lalovic was excited, but tired; traveling back and forth between Serbia and Switzerland (where FILA has its headquarters) and various other countries had taken its toll. His son and daughter are grown up and have started careers of their own, and before the IOC decision he says he was “half retired.” “I was preparing myself for boating,” he says with a rumbling laugh. “But that didn’t work.”

Instead he finds himself crisscrossing the globe preparing wrestling’s case to remain in the Olympics. The morning after the exhibition matches at Grand Central, he was on a plane for Moscow, where FILA hosted a large meeting to vote on whether to make him the permanent president (they did), what rules to change (there were several) and various other parts of the platform to present to the IOC. After a couple of weeks refining their presentation in Switzerland, Lalovic is headed to St. Petersburg this week for the big presentation.

Wrestling has a strong case, he thinks, for the reasons he spoke about at the UN. “Wrestling is in the genes of the human body, and you see that in many areas of the world,” Lalovic says: from Africa to Caucasus, the Middle East, Russia, North and South America, he points out. In many parts of the world–especially in Iran where wrestling is the national sport–matches draw tens of thousands. “Wrestling is culture, it’s history, not just sport,” he says.

(PHOTOS: The Wrestlers of Chechnya: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

But wrestling also had many structural problems that helped lead to the IOC’s vote to drop the sport. Rule changes and a byzantine scoring system rendered matches all but incomprehensible to anyone but the most ardent fans, and many lifelong wrestlers admitted they had no clue what was going on half the time. Matches were broken down into three periods, and the victor was whoever won two out of three. A wrestler could score five points in the first period then lose to an opponent who scored one point in each of the subsequent rounds. In St. Petersburg, FILA voted to change matches to two three-minute periods and a cumulative score. They also made takedowns worth two points instead of one, which is more in line with the high school and college wrestling popular in the United States. FILA also changed its constitution to include a female vice president and has been making the addition of more women to the sport a top priority.

So far, the structural changes have been well received. Last week, IOC President Jacques Rogge gave wrestling fans a glint of optimism in an interview with the Associated Press. “They have addressed the shortcomings,” Rogge said of FILA’s efforts. “That was a good reaction.”

Lalovic and other wrestling officials are confident going into Wednesday’s presentation in St. Petersburg. The executive committee can send a short list of as many as two or three sports to the full IOC, and contingents arguing for the inclusion of squash and baseball/softball have strong arguments as well.

In addition to Lalovic, FILA announced that a diverse cross section of representatives will make the presentation:  Carol Huynh, a Canadian freestyle Olympic Bronze Medalist; Lise Legrand, an Olympic medalist and vice president of the French wrestling federation; Daniel Igali, a Nigerian-Canadian gold medalist from the 2000 Sydney games; and Jim Scherr, a 1988 Olympian who later headed the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Regardless of Wednesday’s decision, Lalovic says he will keep working to improve FILA, making it an organization as strong as the sport it represents. “We will continue to fight. We’ll never stop,” he says. “We’re wrestlers. It’s impossible to stop wrestlers once they’re in a fight.” Wednesday’s decision, while crucial, may just be the middle round of a match wrestling  will continue for quite some time.

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