Body slam for wrestling: Sport cut from Olympics

For wrestling, this may have been the ultimate body slam:
getting tossed out of the Olympic rings.

The vote Tuesday by the IOC’s executive board stunned the
world’s wrestlers, who see their sport as popular in many countries
and steeped in history as old as the Olympics themselves.

While wrestling will be included at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de
Janeiro, it was cut from the games in 2020, which have yet to be
awarded to a host city.

2004 Olympic Greco-Roman champion Khasan Baroev of Russia called
the decision ”mind-boggling.”

”I just can’t believe it. And what sport will then be added to
the Olympic program? What sport is worthy of replacing ours?”
Baroev told the ITAR-Tass news agency. ”Wrestling is popular in
many countries – just see how the medals were distributed at the
last Olympics.”

American Rulan Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic
champion Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Games in an epic
gold-medal bout known as the ”Miracle on the Mat,” was saddened
by the decision to drop what he called ”a beloved sport.”

”It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more
mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what
they founded the Olympics on,” Gardner told The Associated Press
in a telephone interview from Logan, Utah.

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee
reviewed the 26 sports on its summer program in order to remove one
of them so it could add one later this year. It decided to cut
wrestling and keep modern pentathlon – a sport that combines
fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting – and was
considered to be the most likely to be dropped.

The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program
commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including TV ratings,
ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and
popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained
in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also
subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.

”This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for
the Olympics,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. ”In the view of the
executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in
2020. It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling; it is what’s
right with the 25 core sports.”

According to IOC documents obtained by the AP, wrestling ranked
”low” in several of the technical criteria, including popularity
with the public at the London Games – just below 5 on a scale of
10. Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854
available.

Wrestling also ranked ”low” in global TV audience with a
maximum of 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million, the
documents show. Internet hits and press coverage were also ranked
as low.

NBC, which televises the Olympics in the U.S., declined
comment.

The IOC also noted that FILA – the international wrestling
federation – 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.

Modern pentathlon also ranked low in general popularity in
London, with 5.2 out of 10. The sport also ranked low in all TV
categories, with maximum viewership of 33.5 million and an average
of 12.5 million.

FILA has 177 member nations, compared to 108 for modern
pentathlon.

Modern pentathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since
the 1912 Stockholm Games, was created by French baron Pierre de
Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement.

It also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.,
the son of the former IOC president who is a UIPM vice president
and member of the IOC board.

”We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program
commission report but strong in others,” Samaranch told the AP.
”We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the
positives.”

Klaus Schormann, president of governing body UIPM, lobbied hard
to protect his sport’s Olympic status and it paid off in the
end.

”We have promised things and we have delivered,” he said after
Tuesday’s decision. ”That gives me a great feeling. It also gives
me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up.”

The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg,
Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020
inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or
general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for 2020,
but it is extremely unlikely that it would be voted back in so soon
after being removed by the executive board.

The other sports vying for a single opening in 2020 are a
combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller
sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, a martial art.

”Today’s decision is not final,” Adams said. ”The session is
sovereign and the session will make the final decision.”

Wrestling featured 344 athletes competing in 11 medal events in
freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman at last year’s London Olympics,
with Russia dominating the podium but Iran and Azerbaijan making
strong showings. Women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics at the
2004 Athens Games.

Karelin noted in an interview with Vyes’ Sport that Russians and
Soviets have won 77 gold medals.

”It’s understandable that a lot of people didn’t like this,”
Karelin said. ”I’m not a supporter of conspiracy theory, but it
seems to me that the underlying cause here is obvious.”

Tuesday’s decision came via secret ballot over four rounds, with
14 members voting each time on which sport should not be included
in the core group. IOC President Jacques Rogge did not vote.

Three sports were left in the final round: wrestling, field
hockey and modern pentathlon. Eight members voted against wrestling
and three each against the other two sports. Taekwondo and canoe
kayaking survived the previous rounds.

”I was shocked,” said IOC board member Rene Fasel of
Switzerland.

”It was an extremely difficult decision to take,” added IOC
Vice President Thomas Bach of Germany. ”The motivation of every
member is never based on a single reason. There are always several
reasons. It was a secret vote. There will always be criticism, but
I think the great majority will understand that we took a decision
based on facts and for the modernization of the Olympic
Games.”

Wrestling was featured in the first modern Olympics in Athens in
1896. Along with Russia’s Karelin, it has produced such American
stars as Gardner, Bruce Baumgartner, Jeff Blatnick and Jordan
Burroughs.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun also expressed
surprise at the IOC decision, citing ”the history and tradition of
wrestling, and its popularity and universality.”

”It is important to remember that today’s action is a
recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful
opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in
the sports landscape both in the United States and around the
world,” Blackmun said in a statement. ”In the meantime, we will
fully support USA Wrestling and its athletes.”

FILA said in a statement that it was ”greatly astonished” by
the decision, adding that the federation ”will take all necessary
measures to convince the IOC executive board and IOC members of the
aberration of such decision against one of the founding sports of
the ancient and modern Olympic Games.”

It said it has always complied with IOC regulations and is
represented in 180 countries, with wrestling the national sport in
some of them.

The federation, which is headed by Raphael Martinetti and based
in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, said it would meet next week in
Thailand to discuss the matter.

Gardner cited wrestling’s worldwide popularity and urged a
campaign to keep it in the Olympics.

”It just seems like wrestling – if we don’t fight, we’re going
to die,” he said. ”At this point, it’s time for everybody to man
up and support the program.”

The decision hit hard in Russia, which has long been a power in
the sport.

Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling
Federation, suggested FILA had not done enough to keep the sport in
the games.

”We want to hear what was done to prevent this issue from even
being discussed at the board,” he said on the Rossiya TV
channel.

In comments carried by ITAR-Tass, Mamiashvili added: ”I can say
for sure that the roots of this problem is at the FILA. I believe
that Martinetti’s task was to work hard, socialize and defend
wrestling’s place before the IOC.”

Alexander Leipold, a 2000 Olympic champion from Germany and
former freestyle German team coach, said he was shocked.

”We are a technical, tactical martial sport where the aim is
not to harm the opponent,” he said. ”Competing at the Olympics is
the greatest for an athlete.”

Wrestling’s long history in the Olympics has featured some top
names and moments:

– Karelin won the super-heavyweight gold in Greco-Roman over
three straight Olympics – 1988, 1992 and 1996 – until his streak
was ended by Gardner, who beat him for the gold in 2000.

– Baumgartner won four Olympic medals, including golds in 1984
and 1992.

– Blatnick overcame cancer to win gold in Greco-Roman at the
1984 Los Angeles Games, bursting into tears after the match.
Blatnick died last year at age 55.

– Burroughs emerged as the star of the sport in London, where he
won the 74-kilogram gold.

The last sports removed from the Olympics were baseball and
softball, voted out by the IOC in 2005 and off the program since
the 2008 Beijing Games. Golf and rugby will be joining the program
at the 2016 Games in Rio.

Among those in Lausanne were the leaders of the recently created
World Baseball Softball Confederation. The two sports agreed last
year to merge in a joint bid to return to the games.

Don Porter, the American who heads international softball, and
Riccardo Fraccari, the Italian who leads baseball, are working out
the final details of their unified body ahead of their presentation
to the IOC in May.

A major hurdle remains the lack of a commitment from Major
League Baseball to release top players for the Olympics.

Porter and Fraccari said they hope to have another meeting with
MLB officials in April in Tokyo.

”The next thing is to sit down with them and see how they can
help us,” Porter said. ”It all depends on the timing, the timing
of the season. It’s not an easy decision to allow players a week
off.”

Associated Press writers Lynn Berry in Moscow and Luke Meredith
in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this story.