Many people around the sports world today are shocked today that wrestling has been dropped from the Olympic Program in 2020. They've been asking why the IOC would take such action. I discussed the matter on Take Two this morning with A Martinez and Alex Cohen.
The biggest reason for wrestling's demise is Olympic politics. There is simply no influential person with ties to the International Wrestling Federation (abbreviated FILA) who is on the IOC. There hasn't been a wrestling IOC member for over a decade. It's a sport that has been sort of forgotten by the IOC, and one that many had taken for granted.
This is in stark contrast to modern pentathlon, which was also on the IOC chopping block. Despite the fact that modern pentathlon has few worldwide participants, it does have an influential supporter in Juan Samaranch, Jr. The son of the former IOC president, Samaranch is a Vice President of the Modern Pentathlon Union, and used to practice the sport himself. He also has one of the coveted 15 spots on the IOC Executive Board.
The Modern Pentathlon Union has known for years that its future was in doubt, so it has waged a tireless campaign to stay in the Olympic Program, and it has made changes in an attempt to make the sport more appealing. For example, it combined the shooting and running portion of its event, which also includes fencing, swimming, and equestrian. It even added laser guns as part of its shooting segment.
There were rumors that table tennis, badminton, taekwondo, or field hockey could be ousted as well. But table tennis has strong support in China. Korean sports administrators have been openly campaigning to keep taekwondo in the Olympic Program. Despite an embarrassment at the London Games, badminton is supported by several powerful IOC members. Field hockey doesn't have as much support, and it was nearly cut this time.
In the meantime, wrestling may have history, but it is a sport that has been asleep for years. Attendance for wrestling was weak at the London Games. Greco-Roman wrestling, in particular, is not the greatest spectator sport. FILA didn't think its sport was at risk, so it waged virtually no campaign to save itself. Without a real advocate in the IOC, wrestling simply fell by the wayside.
As Alan Abrahamson pointed out at 3WireSports, the FILA web site still has its "Seasons Greetings" and "Happy New Year" message up at the top of its home page. That's pretty embarrassing for February 12, and for this being a day when the site is probably getting record traffic. It shows just how out of touch FILA has been.
I'm personally disappointed by the IOC's decision, in part because I was on my high school wrestling team for a short time. While the IOC is trying to reduce the costs of hosting the Olympic Games, wrestling is not an enormous expense for a host city. The same venue that's used for judo and taekwondo can just as easily be used for wrestling.
The IOC decided to drop a sport because it is attempting to modernize and add sports that will drive young fans and television ratings, while still keeping the costs manageable. It's adding golf in 2016, knowing that Tiger Woods on the Olympic stage will attract eyeballs. It's also adding rugby sevens in an effort to appeal to smaller nations that wouldn't normally win as many medals (it also doesn't hurt that IOC President Jacques Rogge used to play rugby).
For 2020, the IOC will consider a joint bid from baseball and softball, along with wakeboarding, squash, karate, sport climbing, roller sports, and wushu. It's hard to say how the IOC will lean, but picking squash would give the Olympic Movement a chance to make more inroads in India and other South Asian nations which don't win too many medals. Picking wakeboarding, sport climbing, or roller sports could interest younger sports fans, which has been an aim for the IOC in recent years. We've seen that with the addition of BMX biking and several Winter X Games events like snowboard half pipe.
Unfortunately, baseball and softball have a problem in that their venues are expensive to build, and it's just not as popular outside of the United States, Japan, Korea, and a few Latin American countries. For example, in 2004, Athens spent millions building a baseball stadium, only to demolish it right after the Olympics because there's little interest in Greek baseball. The IOC wants to avoid situations like that (even though this does happen to dozens of other Olympic venues).
As for wrestling, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the sport. Technically, its elimination is only a recommendation from the IOC Executive Board. But the full IOC seldom overturns those recommendations. And while it has the opportunity to reapply for 2020, I can't see the IOC backtracking on its decision so quickly.
Still, the move has surprised many people in the sports world, and I expect FILA to get its act together and fiercely campaign for readmission in future Olympic Games. They may succeed. They will have the strong support of Russia, which won 11 wrestling medals in London. Former Soviet Republics like Georgia and Azerbaijan also have proud wrestling traditions. This is actually one of the few issues that can bring the United States and Iran together, as both nations have had great success in wrestling in past Olympics.
But the elimination of wrestling from the Olympic Program could have a devastating impact on the sport in the United States. While women's wrestling was added to the Olympic Games in 2004, it's still a sport that is practiced largely by men. High schools and colleges have been cutting wrestling programs for years in an effort to comply with Title IX - the statute which requires schools to have a gender balance in athletics that's in proportion to the gender balance across the entire student body. With schools across the country continually facing tight budgets, we may see more of them drop wrestling now that the sport has lost appeal by being removed from the Olympic Games.