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.