Wrestling Has Its Biggest Fight

on March 02 2013 12:56 PM

If you woke up this morning and said “I have an idea that will create a bond between the governments of Russia, Cuba, the United States and Iran,” maybe the guess would be something about averting a cataclysmic event like an asteroid crash or a plague. Maybe it would be about another crisis like children’s health. You probably would not have guessed that the idea would be…wrestling. Yes, wrestling.

On February 12, the International Olympic Committee announced that they were going to trim the number of core sports for the 2020 Games by one. Many thought the candidates would be a sport like the pentathlon, not exactly a big ratings or revenue driver and not a sport with a big following. However the sport announced was wrestling, one of the Games’ original contests and one that has garnered some of the greatest stories and medals in the history of the Olympics. While few doubt the history of the sport, many pointed to the lack of leadership at the international level of the sport as to whom wrestling shockingly had its fate handed to them last month.

However, it seems all is not yet lost. The IOC will consider its options and vote on the exclusion in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in the weeks since the announcement, the global wrestling community has reacted quickly and strongly. Heads of State in at least a dozen countries have spoken out in support of the sport, and strange bedfellows have been created between the likes of Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who was wildly cheered and shook the president’s hand last week at a meet in Teheran. U.S. officials have also spent time in Cuba talking to officials there about a unified plan, while Russian leader Vladimir Putin rallied against the IOC decision in a country where wrestling is not far behind hockey in popularity.

Others saw the slight as a slap to Muslim countries, many of which (Turkey, Iran) dominate the sport, while some said it suggested anti-American sentiment. Regardless of the reason, the wrestling world appears to be ready for a fight to restore its place in the Olympic programmer. 

“The support that they (the Iranians) showed not just the Iranian wrestling team, but especially us-- I’ve never quite seen anything like it,” said US bronze medalist and NCAA Champion Coleman Scott, who was part of the U.S. contingent in Teheran. “I mean Jordan Burrows getting a standing ovation anytime he walked on the mat or when they announced his name was outstanding.”

United States officials also recognized the galvanizing power that the ruling had.  “The outpouring of support internationally for this cause and effort is nothing short of miraculous. Of the 177 nations of the international wrestling community, we’ve nearly heard from all of them,” said USA Wrestling head Rich Bender.  “The values of our sport are obvious.  If you talk about things like the relationships we’ve been able to build amongst countries that have some political difference like Iran and Russia are two great examples of where our sport has really provided an opportunity to better mankind.”

The battle to reinstate the sport will not be easy, with many of the changes needing to be made at the international level. Two key Americans, former USOC head, Jim Scheer and his brother Bill Scheer who led the Chicago 2016 bid, will be part of the team appointed to help sway the IOC back.

If the lobbying and support efforts fail, the results could be devastating for the sport. Outside the United States most programs are government funded; with the reason being that the success at the Olympic level needs a large financial commitment. Without Olympic status, those funds will be diverted to sports still in the games. In the U.S., wrestling has thrived at the grassroots and high school level and is on the rebound at many colleges, but those programs could also see a dip in athletes and dollars. Even a sport like MMA, which has wrestling as one if its disciplines and has a large number of former elite athletes as its greatest champions, could take a long term hit with a portion of its talent pool going dry.

It appears the fight has just begun, and many feel the vote was a much-needed global wakeup call for a sport which is long on tradition, but admits it has been slow to market and adapt to a changing fan base. That change has now been jumpstarted and should continue regardless of the IOC’s next move.

Will the efforts be too late? It is still early, nevertheless as former collegiate wrestler turned Wall Street leader Mike Novogratz (he also helps fund “Beat The Streets,” perhaps the largest privately funded inner city sports program in the world) added; “The last thing you want to do is pick a fight with a wrestler, and that’s what the IOC has chosen to do. We always get up and come back for the next round, and this will be no different.”

Sounds like IOC officials may be in for a battle, from one of its core sports.  Quite a wakeup call for wrestling.