After 7-month exile, wrestling returns to Olympics

Wrestling is officially back in the Olympic Games.

We can ease the angry yells of shock and hurt, the soapboxes about how wrestling never deserved to go, the sob stories about what a vital backbone wrestling is to the Olympics.

It’s like wrestling was never gone. Because wait, it wasn’t.

On Feb. 12, wrestling, one of the original Olympic sports, was surprisingly dropped from the Olympics when the International Olympic Committee voted on 25 sports that would make up the Olympics starting in 2020. Wrestling did not make the cut. After seven months of bold and quick changes to improve the sport, wrestling was voted back in, beating out a joint baseball-softball bid and squash.

When people look back on Olympic history, they are not going to remember wrestling being knocked out of the Olympic games and the whirlwind the wrestling world had to go through to get back into it. People from this generation might not even realize there was ever a problem when really, the story is pretty fascinating.

Wrestling can be seen as an ideal Olympic sport. It’s basic, with a minimal amount of equipment, and it truly tests the physical strength and endurance of two competitors. The sport has global stature with 177 federations on six continents and powerful contenders from around the world. Olympic glory is the highest level of accomplishment for wrestling, unlike sports with other major championships.

It is the history and tradition of wrestling that doomed the sport. The IOC had expressed concern about the rapidly growing nature of the Olympic Games and desire to attract younger viewers and be relevant to sports fans of all ages. Olympic-style wrestling — freestyle and Greco-Roman — was hardly visible other than during the Olympics. And even then, there were hardly any known stars, and it was a male-dominated sport. Women joined the freestyle wrestling divisions during the Athens 2004 Games, but they were not included in Greco-Roman wrestling.

FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, sprang to action when the sport was dropped. Three days after the fateful decision, Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president and Nenad Lalovic of Serbia was designated as acting president. He immediately focused on rules, gender equity and FILA’s internal workings — all of the gray areas about the sport. In May, Lalovic was elected actual president, and the IOC voted for wrestling to make the cut from eight sports to three on the list for 2020.

FILA created two additional weight classes for women, which will be active in time for the 2016 Game. The sport will be more fast-paced, with less stalling, more scoring and a point-based approach instead of best two-of-three periods. FILA even had a Save Olympic Wrestling meet in Ancient Olympia, Greece, where women wrestled at the location of the first Olympics, something that had never happened before. These changes make the sport more marketable and exciting for the Olympics.

The battle Sunday was handily won by wrestling with 49 votes. Baseball and softball (24 votes) were dropped after Beijing 2008 and squash (22 votes) has never been in the Olympics. The baseball-softball sales pitch was about the sports’ growth among women. Squash, which was trying for the third time to enter the games, marketed itself as a sport of the future, which was seemingly a direct snub at wrestling.

Maybe removing wrestling from the Olympics was just a slap in the face for FILA. But clearly, FILA took that slap in the face seriously, and that’s what really matters.

The seven-month hiatus wrestling took from the Olympic games won’t be more than a drop in Olympic history. But for wrestling history, the sport will never be the same and is on its way to re-establishing itself as a dynamic and worthy Olympic sport.

Emily is a graduate student. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @EmilyBayci.