Wrestling’s way forward: Grappling in, Greco and whining out

wrestlingNow that we’ve picked our jaws up off the floor from the IOC vote to squeeze wrestling out of the Olympic rings, let’s see what arguments work and which ones don’t.

As you’d expect in the free-for-all, speak-before-reading atmosphere of the Interwebs, commenters on various sites have come up with some stupid responses. But some educated observers also might be missing the boat.

Argument: The IOC is just trying to be the X Games.

Winter Games, sure — they’ve added all kinds of snowboard and freestyle skiing events.

Summer Games? The last sports added were golf and rugby sevens. The sports most likely to be added next are baseball/softball, karate or squash. Don’t recall seeing those sports covered at EXPN.

Argument: They should just get rid of ping pong.

Ahem … table tennis beat wrestling in most of the numbers cited in the 2009 IOC report. I’d doubt wrestling made up that much ground in four years. For one thing, table tennis has a staggering 190 national federations to wrestling’s 167.

Wrestling does have one argument in comparison to table tennis and badminton — in the two racket/paddle sports, everyone’s playing for silver medals behind China. The IOC should be (and might be) telling those federations to step it up internationally, just as they have to women’s hockey and now-excluded softball.

(The IOC hasn’t issued a 2013 version of that 2009 report, but they have made the criteria public.)

Argument: They should just get rid of modern pentathlon.

In a head-to-head vote between wrestling and modern pentathlon, sure, wrestling has a stronger case. But modern pentathlon has a case for inclusion as well — a better one, I’d argue, than most of the sports bidding to get into the Games this fall.

(Incidentally, one report going around yesterday suggested the IOC may add three sports this fall. I haven’t confirmed it, but I think that’s a misreading. The Olympic programme is growing by three sports — golf, rugby, and sport-tba-this-fall. Every official release I’ve seen mentions no possibilities beyond that. If you see something contrary, please let me know.)

Argument: They should get rid of race walking or trampoline or synchronized swimming.

Those are specific events within established sports. In those case, the established sports are track and field, gymnastics, and swimming. Go ahead — try to get one of those three sports evicted from the Games.

If you want to argue to exclude those events, fine, but it’s a separate argument. You’re not going to convince the IOC to bring back wrestling to replace the 32 trampoline athletes you’re kicking out of the Games.

Argument: The number of sports is just so arbitrary. Why are they doing this?

The goal is to keep the Games from growing out of hand so that future host cities won’t be totally bankrupt for decades. But yes, the number of sports may be a bad way to do that. Track and field has 47 events with roughly 2,000 athletes from roughly 200 countries. Modern pentathlon has two events with 72 athletes. Archery has four events with 128 athletes.

That’s the human toll. Then there’s the logistical toll. Rio is building a golf course to accommodate a new sport. Wrestling just needs an existing gym and some mats.

Argument: In 2008, wrestling had Olympians from a bajillion countries, while modern pentathlon had less than 30.

Modern pentathlon has exactly two events with 72 total athletes. Wrestling has seven weight classes in two men’s disciplines for a total of 14, then four weight classes for women. The USA alone had 17 wrestlers in London. Kazakhstan had 15.

Yes, wrestling has a good “universality” argument — 29 different countries won medals. But don’t compare those apples to modern pentathlon’s oranges.

Argument: This is just a slap in the face of the USA, the most successful nation.

Not quite. The big dog in the Olympics is actually the Soviet Union/Russia, which is listed as separate countries in most records. The USA is a strong second in the all-time table but hasn’t led the medal count in this millennium. There’s a reason Rulon Gardner’s win is considered a colossal upset.

That said, my former USA TODAY colleague Christine Brennan raises a good question today: When will the USA, whose companies’ cash props up the Games, start exerting its influence?

Russia’s gearing up for a fight to keep wrestling in the Games. Japan and Iran can’t be happy, either. Maybe U.S. sponsors could provide the tipping point?

(And in case you think these political adversaries can’t team up, check the U.S. wrestling team’s travel itinerary for February. And an Iranian newspaper is calling the USA, Russia and Iran “the axis” to stand up and defend wrestling.)

Argument: International wrestling federation FILA was too complacent.

We have a winner.

Bloody Elbow’s Mike Riordan:

FILA exists to prevent this very thing from happening. If they can’t prevent wrestling from being removed from the Olympic program, then they are failing at their existential purpose. How could they stand around and watch while other sports were lobbying the IOC? What the hell were they thinking?

FILA was either negligent or reckless here, as they either disregarded a risk they were aware of or never noticed a risk they should not have missed. They totally and irrevocably soiled their metaphorical sheets and mattress.

Veteran Oly journalist Alan Abrahamson:

(Wrestling) ranked low in the TV categories as well, with 58.5 million viewers max and an average of 23 million. Internet hits and press coverage also were ranked as low.

For all of wrestling’s claims of “universality,” moreover, the sport — while immensely popular in places such as the United States, Japan, Russia, eastern Europe, former Soviet bloc nations, Turkey and Iran — doesn’t really offer up that many Asian, African or Latin athletes. Which longtime observers such as Harvey Schiller, the former baseball federation president, pointed out, also noting that it simply is “not great TV.”

Moreover, the IOC report also observed that FILA has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women’s commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.

There’s this, too, though the IOC report doesn’t mention it: FILA is virtually invisible on Facebook. In the year 2013, that is almost indefensible. (Quick aside from BD: Their website is, even by the poor standard of international federation sites, an absolute mess.)

Pentathlon — given a warning in 2002 — got with the program, so to speak.

It cut its competition schedule from five days, to four, to one. It instituted the use of laser pistols instead of regular guns. It also played politics, an IOC essential, with UIPM first vice president Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. now sitting on the IOC board.

FILA did virtually nothing.

(That’s a long excerpt, but please, read all of Alan’s piece.)

What’s the way forward? Let’s go to another point from Mike’s piece:

In 2002, an IOC review essentially told FILA to get rid of a wrestling style (i.e. Greco) because having two was confusing the casual viewing audience. FILA stood up for itself and retained both styles. I believe that the IOC’s decision to eliminate Wrestling may be something of a power move designed to show other sports what happens when their wishes are not complied with.

Wrestling purists may hate this, but it’s probably time to ditch Greco-Roman wrestling.

But wrestling can also take a more positive step and add something else, a discipline that touches both the ancient world and the modern:

Grappling.

FILA already runs grappling competitions. They were a bridge for 2009 world champion Sara McMann from her Olympic wrestling career to her MMA career.

Some MMA fans and promoters still harbor delusions of getting MMA in the Games. As we’ve seen this week, the politics of getting into the Games aren’t pretty. Getting into Madison Square Garden, by comparison, is a lush walk on rose pedals. And by the time they add headgear and other restrictions so that athletes can fight a complete tournament in two weeks, it won’t look like MMA.

Grappling, though, incorporates a lot of MMA elements. And it’s an easy addition to the program. Just scratch out “Greco-Roman” and write “grappling.”

Also, grappling may attract more women. Judo is nearly gender-equal. Wrestling is not, and Greco-Roman has no women at all. That’s important.

So wrestling could add an existing discipline to its existing program, appeal to modern MMA fans and harken back to the pankration days of yore.

And making such a move would give the IOC a way to “change its mind” while saving face. They could say wrestling has acceded to their demands for change. That’s an easier decision to spin than the “lots of people got mad and lobbied us” outcome.

Win-win-win-win. At the very least, worth a shot if it means keeping a traditional Olympic sport in the Games.

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3 Responses to Wrestling’s way forward: Grappling in, Greco and whining out

  1. Andrew says:

    Great post. Couple of comments.

    1) I wouldn’t totally discount the “IOC is just trying to be the X-Games” thesis. Don’t forget the recent addition of BMX to the summer program, or the additions of beach volleyball and mountain bike (not technically X-Games sports). Plus, note that wakeboarding and rock climbing are two of the sports in consideration for 2020. The point is that the driving force behind these dubious decisions is a desire to appeal to more, and younger, TV viewers. So I would expect the X-Gamesification of both the summer and winter Olympics to continue.

    2) I think that it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that synchronized swimming or trampoline be axed instead of wrestling. True, it is a different question – i.e., which disciplines to include rather than which sports – but perhaps that’s the question we should be asking! We’ve seen “discipline inflation”, to coin a phrase, in recent years, with the addition of new diving events, open-water swimming, the aforementioned cycling disciplines, etc., all under the auspices of existing sports. These new disciplines and events increase the size of the Games – in terms of personnel, facilities, expenses – just as new sports would. And, decisions regarding each sport’s program are made in consultation with the IOC. So, if the IOC is truly concerned about the summer Games getting too big, they should exert influence on the IFs to streamline the program by reducing the number of disciplines and events. (Wrestling is included in this – clearly the time has come to drop the Greco-Roman discipline.)

  2. Joshua says:

    Well, wrestling can always go to the World Games with all the other Olympics castoffs and wannabees.

    I though it was Boxing that was on the chopping block and set to get canned.

    IMHO, Basketball s/b given the exit. Another one s/b Ice Hockey, although it is a Winter Olympics sport. Too many athletes to win just one Gold Medal. Both the NBA and NHL want out of the Olympics, if what I read is correct.

    Golf in the Olympics is a travesty. And I thought adding Tennis to the Olympics was a bad mistake.

    This is all about keeping and even expanding the huge TV audience in China and getting more people in countries like India and Indonesia to become more interested in the Olympics. The IOC is subtly changing its sports menu to suit a more Eurasian taste.

    The Eurocentric IOC could care less about the US market. it is something they think will always be there. Like the fact that there will be a US bid for the Summer or Winter Olympic Games every cycle.

  3. nicky charles says:

    ‘This is all about……..getting countries like India to become more interested in the olympics.’

    – Why would the removal of wrestling appeal to the Indians? Two of their six medals in London came from the sport. In any event, the only way the IOC will engage the interest of India – and for that matter Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka – in the Olympics is if they include cricket in the programme.

    ‘The IOC is subtly changing its sports menu to suit a more eurasion taste.’

    – So they’ve removed a sport, ie. wrestling which is popular in eastern Europe and central Asia and included, among the three newest sports, golf and tennis which are both strong sports in the US and Rugby Sevens whose power base is in the southern
    hemisphere!

    ‘The eurocentric IOC couldn’t care less about the US market.’

    – This may come as surprise but the IOC doesn’t exist solely for the benefit of the US. In any case, are you really telling us the audience for golf and tennis in the US is less than that for wrestling?

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