By PAUL NEWBERRY
Wrestling is heeding the harshest of wakeup calls.
Now it’s time for the International Olympic Committee to do the right thing.
Put this most historic of sports back on the program for the 2020 Summer Games.
Assuming the governing body, known as FILA, follows through on major steps — simplifying the rules, settling on a new leader, pressing forward with ways to make the sport more hip and exciting for fans — there’s no reason for wrestling to compete with seven other sports vying to get on the Olympic program.
Besides, those other sports — squash, karate, roller sport, wushu, sport climbing, wakeboarding and a combined baseball-softball bid — all deserve a fair shot at the one available spot, which they may not get because of the justifiable outcry over wrestling’s exclusion.
“Maybe we can share a venue with wrestling,” joked Andrew Shelley, the CEO of World Squash.
All quips aside, this would be a good time for the IOC to re-examine its rules that allow a maximum of 28 federations into the Summer Games, an arbitrary guideline that was supposed to hold down the size, scope and cost of the Olympics (how’s that working out?) but turned into one of the biggest stumbles of outgoing President Jacques Rogge’s regime.
In the eyes of the IOC, aquatics is considered to be one sport because swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo and open water are governed by a single federation. But it’s actually five sports.
Yet the related — but distinctly different — disciplines within martial arts are ruled by separate organizations, which explains how judo and taekwondo are Olympic sports, karate and wushu are not.
Most of the focus at the moment is on wrestling’s bid to remain on the program past the 2016 Rio Games after the IOC stunningly gave it the boot in February, throwing it into the pool of wannabe sports for 2020.
From a purely athletic standpoint, it was a decision that made absolutely no sense. There’s history: Wrestling is one of the few sports that can say it’s been part of the Olympics since ancient Greece. There’s universality: While Russia and the United States are two of the biggest powerhouses, the competition in London drew 71 nations — 29 of which claimed medals.
Yet the IOC, ticked at FILA’s resistance to doing anything progressive and clear arrogance that its place in the Olympics was secure, gave wrestling the heave-ho while keeping the obscure sport of modern pentathlon, which tests the skills needed by a 19th-century cavalry officer.
“Wrestling failed to keep its sport properly modern,” conceded Stan Dziedzic, a FILA vice president and 1976 Olympic medalist. “We did a very poor job there.”
Even so, the decision sparked outrage around the globe. Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to do what he could to overturn it. The U.S. and Iran, two nations that rarely agree on anything, became wrestling allies. Supporters took their campaign to social media, unleashing countless tweets (hash tag: SaveOlympicWrestling) and setting up a Facebook page that has grown to more than 92,000 backers.
Dziedzic told The Associated Press that the governing body reached agreement on several points ahead of Saturday’s special meeting in Moscow, most notably getting former President Raphael Martinetti to drop his bid to regain the job. Acting President Nenad Lalovic is the only candidate who’ll be considered when FILA votes on a successor, considered a key step in repairing relations with the IOC.
The federation also is expected to approve some significant rules changes, such as switching from three two-minute periods to two three-minute periods, having the winner determined by total points rather than who wins the most periods (which led to a wrestler with fewer points sometimes winning the match), and eliminating the reviled overtime rule used in freestyle, known as “The Clinch,” which put one wrestler at a severe disadvantage.
More important will be the changes to come. For now, FILA won’t be acting on radical proposals to change the look of the sport, from replacing uniforms known as singlets with tight-fitting T-shirts and shorts (a change that likely would make more youngsters comfortable about trying the sport) to jazzing up meets with loud music and flashy lights, more in line with a professional boxing or mixed martials arts event.
“None of us is qualified to do that,” Dziedzic said. “The object is to hire a professional public relations firm to help us improve the pageantry and drama in our presentation at events.”
A bit troubling is that FILA isn’t ready to act on one of its most pressing problems: getting more women and athletes involved in running the sport. But Dziedzic said the federation is committed to revamping its constitution over the next year to come in compliance with IOC guidelines, as well as moving toward more gender equity on the mat. That will likely mean six women’s freestyle events at the next Olympics, while the number of men’s divisions is reduced from seven to six in both freestyle and Greco-Roman.
“We had heated discussions around the governance issue,” Dziedzic said in a phone call from Moscow. “That won’t be completely solved here.”
The 15-member IOC board will decide if wrestling has done enough to remain on the road to re-inclusion when it meets May 29-31 in St. Petersburg, Russia. At that point, three of the eight sports are likely to be forwarded to the full IOC assembly, which meets in September at Buenos Aires to pick one of them.
We’d like to see the IOC take a more radical path:
— Restore wrestling without another vote.
— Dump modern pentathlon (sorry, 19th-century cavalry officers no longer needed).
— Add karate and wushu to the Olympic martial arts, assuming those federations can agree with judo and taekwondo — no easy task — on a compressed format that keeps the total number of athletes the same and can be held at one venue over the 16-day schedule.
— Approve squash, roller sport and baseball-softball, with a few caveats to the latter two proposals.
Baseball and softball have said they can use one venue to cut costs, but baseball should make a big push to get major leaguers on the field. Perhaps a pre-Olympic tournament could be held at the end of the spring training, with the top four nations advancing to a brief Olympic tournament that essentially would replace the All-Star break every four years, requiring no interruption of the season. If MLB won’t agree to that, then only softball should be added.
Roller sport should hold track events and skateboarding on the infield of the cycling velodrome, which would give those expensive venues more bang for their bucks. At London, a velodrome that cost more than $150 million was used for just six days.
Finally, squash should be a no-brainer. With temporary glass courts, it can be held at iconic venues that would provide a perfect backdrop for all-mighty television (events have been held everywhere from Grand Central Station to the Great Pyramids). The top players come from nations such as Malaysia and Egypt that aren’t traditional Olympic powerhouses, spreading the scope of the games. The proposed format — 32 men, 32 women competing over six days — would put minimal stress on an organizing committee.
“We believe we’ve got a sport that can add value to the Olympics,” Shelley said Friday.
No argument there.
If only it was that simple.