Olympics: Vote to Dump Wrestling Should Be Overturned
Soon after the first of our anthropoid ancestors came down out of the trees and began fighting over a lady love or possibly low-hanging fruit, the strongest one wrestled others to the ground and won the prize.
So began one of the earliest competitive sports in human history — hand-to-hand combat that we refer to as wrestling.
Ancient history tells us that Antaeus, son of Poseidon, was not only a giant who was an undefeated wrestler, but that he killed each man he whipped during his career — until he met and challenged Hercules.
Thus ended Antaeus, who was killed in that wrestling match.
Some years later, give or take an eon here and there, wrestling matches were part of the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece about 1,200 BC. Many of those “sporting” matches were battles to the death, à la Hercules.
Then, long after the Greek city states fell under the power of Rome, Roman emperors became Christians, and in 393 AD Emperor Theodosius the Great put an end to the ancient Greek Olympic Games. He did so because the Olympic Games were started more than 1,500 years earlier as a way to honor the pagan Greek gods who were not too popular with Christians in the 4th century AD.
It naturally followed centuries later that wrestling was selected as one of the nine sports making up the first modern Olympic Games when they were initiated in Athens in 1896. It was a more civil form of the sport that does not require a kill for the victory. A shoulder pin or abundance of points suffices nowadays.
But strangely enough we have some Theodosius types in control of our modern Olympic Games. They are the 15 pompous and clueless members of the International Olympic Committee Executive Board who voted 12 days ago to eliminate wrestling (Greco Roman and freestyle) from the Olympic Games starting with the 2020 summer games.
They did not vote to end the Olympic Games as Theodosius did. But they might as well have announced their desire to abolish from the face of the Earth that oldest of competitions in human history.
Wrestling may well suffer a fatal blow unless it can restore its standing as an Olympic sport because the Olympic Games are the ultimate goal of any wrestler in the world.
It is as if one took the World Series out of Major League Baseball, the Super Bowl out of the National Football League, or the World Cup out of soccer.
Blatant Conflict of Interest
The 12 men and three women of the IOC Executive Board had a choice to make — keep wrestling or modern pentathlon in the Olympic Games after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
It took them four secret ballots to boot wrestling out of the Olympic Games and retain the modern pentathlon.
Not one of the 15 IOC Executive Board members is from the two leading wrestling countries — United States and Russia. A dozen of the Executive Board members are now or have been officers of national or international organizations running sports other than wrestling that are in the Olympics or trying to get into the Olympics.
Most prominent among those with such a blatant conflict of interest is Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is the son of the late former president of the IOC. Juan Antonio Jr. is the first vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
Yet he was allowed to lobby the board members and vote to oust wrestling from the Olympic Games while retaining modern pentathlon.
Following the IOC action against wrestling, the president of the FILA (the international wrestling body), Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland, resigned that position, which he had held since 2002.
There has been considerable criticism within the wrestling world about how the FILA has failed to sell the sport to the IOC and do the necessary lobbying in the jungle of Olympic politics.
Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, said, “This decision provides international wrestling with an opportunity to change and improve. The sport will now be able to create a fresh new relationship with the IOC and address some of the pressing challenges and opportunities facing wrestling.”
Bender and other wrestling aficionados said the primary goal is to make sure wrestling gets back into the Olympic Games.
Not Anytime Soon
The action by the IOC Executive Board puts wrestling with seven other sports that will apply to the entire IOC body later this year for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics. But the IOC Executive Board vote virtually ensures wrestling has no chance to come back to the Olympics very soon — unless.
This same IOC Executive Board will meet in Moscow in May. Wrestling officials from all over the world are already moving to get Vladimir Putin to convince that bunch of 15 ill-advised persons to change their minds and reinstate wrestling. It will be a hard sell even for the pugnacious and athletic president of Russia, who is himself a wrestler, runner and horseman — three Olympic disciplines.
The entire IOC will meet in September to put its stamp of approval on any Executive Board actions, including what 28 sports to approve for the 2020 games. This is usually a routine “yes” vote by the full IOC.
The 2020 Olympic Games site has not yet been decided.
In dumping the ancient sport of wrestling, the Executive Board issued a lengthy bit of nonsense for an excuse about why it voted as it did. Among the reasons given was a hint that wrestling is not a good TV sport, and that audiences around the world want something “modern.” Seems that word may have helped the modern pentathlon in this regard.
However, it is difficult to imagine what TV stats the Executive Board was using, because wrestling at the London Olympics last summer attracted an average viewing audience of 23 million around the world, compared with 12.5 million for modern pentathlon, a sport few people understand. The maximum viewership at any given moment for each sport was 58.5 million for wrestling to 33.5 million for modern pentathlon.
The Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA) claims to have 177 member nations while the International Modern Pentathlon Union has 108 nations.
Thomas Bach, of Germany, an IOC vice president and member of the Executive Board, said, “I think the great majority will understand we took a decision based on facts and for the modernization of the Olympic Games.”
So much for Olympic-type facts.
Always a Part
The modern pentathlon was dreamed up by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who was the founder of the modern Olympic Games and first president of the IOC. He introduced this five-cornered competition into the Olympic Games in 1912m and it has been a part of summer Olympics ever since.
Modern pentathlon consists of five contests (penta meaning five and athlon meaning contest) — pistol shooting, fencing, freestyle swimming, horse show jumping and cross country run.
Women first competed in an Olympic modern pentathlon in 2000 and in wrestling in 2004.
Ironically, the ancient Greek Olympics also had a pentathlon of sorts. There is some confusion about exactly what five sports were included in the old pentathlon. But the majority of information indicates that discus throwing, javelin throwing, foot races and the running long jump were four of the five events. However, every historian on the subject seems to agree that the fifth sport in the ancient pentathlon was wrestling.
Wrestling was really a big part of the Olympic Games and should remain so.
The United States certainly hopes wrestling survives, since we have won more wrestling medals — 125 — than any other nation. This includes 50 gold medals, also more than any other nation.
The USA has only two silver and two bronze medals in men’s individual modern pentathlon and one women’s silver medal. We won three silver and one bronze in the modern pentathlon team competition that was held in only 11 Olympic Games, 1952-1992.
One of the everlasting problems with the IOC is that too many pampered remnants of otherwise useless European, African and Asian royalty and politicians find refuge in serving on and confusing the workings of the IOC and its many committees. Some thickheaded Americans have, over time, also contributed confusion to IOC issues.
It is as if the IOC is trying to emulate the United States Congress.
Rarely has this international body of men and a few women ever made such a mistake as to eliminate a classic sport like wrestling from the Olympic Games. Hopefully the full membership of the IOC will not follow like unthinking lemmings as has been its wont in the past. Just maybe the big body will overturn the foolishness of the 15-member IOC Executive Board and restore some sanity to the Olympic Games.
But don’t bet on it.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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