Wrestling beats baseball-softball and squash in IOC vote in Buenos Aires.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA–With the IOC fixing what it admits was a big mistake, wrestling returned to the Olympic fold Sunday after seven months in limbo and promised to do what it takes to keep its place for the long run.
Presenting new leadership and a revamped sport, wrestling easily defeated bids from baseball-softball and squash to secure a spot in the 2020 and 2024 Games.
The result capped a frantic six-month campaign by wrestling body FILA to save its Olympic status after the IOC executive board surprisingly cut it from the list of core sports in February.
“We are aware of our mistakes and they will not happen again,” wrestling head Nenad Lalovic said. “This crisis gave us the strength to change and we finally found out that we can change. This was the most valuable experience of all of this journey.”
Wrestling received 49 votes to win in the first round of International Olympic Committee balloting. A combined bid by baseball and softball got 24 votes, squash 22.
Canadian women’s coach Leigh Vierling was thrilled by the news.
“I woke up this morning so apprehensive, yet so excited. I was just such an amazing mix of emotion,” he said. “The relief when the actual decision was phenomenal.”
There are 177 countries with a national wrestling federation, 71 countries qualified for the last Olympics and wrestlers from 29 different nations made it to the podium in London last summer. Canada has fared well in the sport at the Olympic level, where Carol Huynh (2008) and Daniel Igali (2000) have won gold.
“Wrestling has shown great passion and resilience in the last few months,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said Sunday. “They have taken a number of steps to modernize and improve their sport.”
Wrestling made significant changes, paving the way to reinstatement: giving athletes, women in particular, a role in decision making; adding two weight classes for women; adopting viewer-friendly rule changes to make the sport easier to understand and reward more aggressive wrestling.
The vote followed final presentations by all three sports, with Lalovic calling it “the most important day in the 2,000-year history of our sport.”
Vang Iannides, a member of the executive committee of Wrestling Canada, said Sunday night that the organization was “both relieved and excited at the decision taken today … In my opinion it (the IOC’s altering of things like scoring) has made wrestling better.
“The Olympics without wrestling wouldn’t be the Olympics,” said Iannides.
Wrestling goes back to the ancient Olympics in Greece and has been on the program of every modern games except 1900. The sport was caught off guard when it was axed by the board – a decision that surprised even most IOC members. Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president within days of the IOC vote and was replaced by Lalovic.
Powerful countries and unlikely political allies such as the United States, Iran and Russia threw their weight behind the campaign.
“Wrestling is not a new sport,” Lalovic said, “but the wrestling we are presenting now is a new wrestling.”
Wrestling was approved as an “additional sport” for 2020 and 2024. Before it was dropped, the intention was to welcome an entirely new sport to the Olympic mix.
“The result is we are back where we started and they’ve spent a lot of time and energy, emotional or otherwise, in a process that was pretty well doomed,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said.
Pound proposed postponement of the vote for five months to allow a new sport to get in, but that was rejected by Rogge and the rest of the delegates.
“This doesn’t happen in the IOC too often, but that vote is to tell the executive committee, you made a mess of this and we’re going to fix the mess and we’ve got to figure out another way forward,” Pound said.
Wrestling’s reinstatement was cheered by some of the biggest names in the sport.
“It’s almost like you expected that to happen,” former American Olympic gold medallist and coach Dan Gable told The Associated Press. “But we certainly didn’t expect what happened in February to happen, and because of that you learn and work through the whole process.”
Russian great Alexander Karelin called it “a big result for us and for the new guys who are coming (into the sport). I think we have a great story, great history and Olympic traditions,” Karelin said.
For the future, the IOC will consider tweaking the process, possibly juggling events and disciplines to make room for new sports, while staying inside the cap of 10,500 athletes.
Squash and baseball-softball could potentially get another chance down the road.
Don Porter, co-president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, choked up and had tears in his eyes as he talked about receiving letters from young girls who were distraught when softball was dropped.
Porter broke down again later when he told reporters: “I feel like I let them down.”