Ladies and gentlemen, wrestling is back in The Games.
The seven-month struggle flew right by. It started with the shocking news that one of the original Olympic sports might not be in existence in 2020 after it was voted out by The Games' governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It quickly saw people from literally all walks of life vent their outrage and show their support. On Sunday, it culminated with the announcement that it would, in fact, still be around in 2020.
Naturally, the reaction from supporters around the globe has been nothing but ecstatic, and rightly so. Hundreds of thousands have dedicated their lives to this sport, and it likely wouldn't still be part of the Olympics if it wasn't for their efforts over recent months.
However, this struggle, and the decision to undue February's vote, isn't about wrestling. It isn't about sport. It isn't even about money.
It is about cowardice, deceit and corruption. Plain and simple.
This might confuse some. After all, bringing back wrestling rights the wrongs. It means the IOC learned their mistake. It means this was just a nightmare that everyone can wake up from and move on like it never happened.
That, though, is simply not the case.
The Battle to Save a Sport
Obviously, for a sport like American football, the pinnacle of what a person can do is win the Super Bowl. That's what the little league players are striving for when their dad drives them to practice, and what they are dreaming of when they play in college. It's the same, for the most part, with baseball, basketball and ice hockey.
For basically every other sport, however, the highest conceivable accomplishment is an Olympic medal. It's a reality many sports struggle with, and a fact the IOC exploits as often as possible.
Like no other organization in sports, the IOC is capable of imposing their will on everyone below them. When a meeting like the one in February is held, the governing bodies of every sport across the board instantly become putty for the IOC to mold as they desire. Like a mafia don walking down an inner-city street in the 1920s, the they are showered with gifts in order to win their approval.
Depending on the sport, these tokens may be as small as a minor rule change that will favor athletes from the nations of the IOC's members. For other sports, they can be outright bribes.
Take judo, for example.
The sport's governing body, the IJF, found itself under a great deal of pressure following lackluster ratings across the globe and a spotty level of participation. This prospectively put them on the chopping block and pushed them into the awkward position where they either had to maintain the integrity and spirit of the martial art, or bend to the IOC's whims.
They chose the pragmatic route. Sweeping rule changes were made, designed to increase the odds of winning among European nations by removing attacks to the legs and prolonged clinching. These tweaks removed a previously substantial advantage held by countries that had strong wrestling programs, particularly South Korea and Russia.
While wrestling was in the same boat as judo, FILA (wrestling's governing body) made no such effort. Reasons why range from righteous indignation to arrogant indifference, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. Things likely wouldn't have played out any differently.
Modern Pentathlon and Conflicts of Interest
Wrestling getting cut from the Olympics was a shock to most, including insiders. The reason, in large part, was because there was virtually no case to be made for preserving modern pentathlon.
Modern pentathlon is a sort of relic of the Olympic Games. It is designed to keep the feel of the ancient pentathlon, which combined the five events that were most relevant to soldiers of the era (foot racing, wrestling, jumping, javelin throwing and the discus), and in theory showed who was the ultimate warrior of the time.
Modern pentathlon, theoretically, does the same...or did, when it was first conceived at the turn of the 20th century. However, with events that include fencing, show jumping, swimming and a 3-kilometer cross-country race broken up every 1000 meters with air pistol shooting, the competition lacks relevance in emulating a modern military and lacks a purpose when all those events are already done in the Games with across-the-board better athletes in each sport.
Pepper in the fact that it consistently draws some of the Summer Games' worst ratings and the dreadfully low participation on a global scale (26 nations were represented in 2012), and there is a slam-dunk exit for modern pentathlon. Or there would be, at least, if a prominent member of the IOC's Executive Committee wasn't the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs is the son of Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the IOC, and former Minister for Sports of the Fascist Francisco Franco regime of Spain. His father's tenure as head of the IOC was mired by non-stop scandals but is regarded as one of the best due to rapidly-growing bank accounts for both the IOC and its individual members. Samaranch used that influence to reportedly pressure other IOC members into approving his son's nomination for a spot in the IOC.
Indeed, the initial vote in February had many pointing directly at Samaranch for wrestling's dismissal. While many outright claimed there was collusion, the IOC is deliberately secretive when it comes to their voting, absolving many of any sort of responsibility for this. Regardless, it is impossible to deny the profound conflict of interest Samaranch owns when it comes to votes that jeopardize modern pentathlon's future.
Toiling Away in Vain
Wrestling, once again, is back in The Games. However, it's important to remember that this came at the direct expense of other sports.
The vote in February was a three-way race between modern pentathlon, taekwondo and wrestling. All three sports shared lackluster TV ratings globally. Where wrestling and taekwondo both have a major edge were in the logistics of setting up the sport (the sport requires horses, a cross-country track and laser pistols) and global participation. As was said over at SB Nation, “Wrestling has 167 active national federations. Other sports: Archery 139, equestrian 133, field hockey 122, triathlon 116, modern pentathlon 104. (Taekwondo, surprisingly, has a healthy 186).” In the London Games, 63 countries sent athletes to participate in taekwondo, 71 were represented in wrestling, but just 26 took part in the pentathlon. While lacking in ratings, wrestling still mightily outdrew modern pentathlon
All that is to say that there was no reason to preserve Samaranch's sport of choice.
The thing is, wrestling's fate was never in danger. Wrestling was cut in February because the IOC knew it would be the favorite for September's vote. While modern pentathlon would have had the same opportunity to work its way back into The Games the same way wrestling just has. However, against the drawing power of baseball/softball in Central America and East Asia and the strong push behind squash from tennis circles, all the weaknesses of the most archaic sport of The Games would be laid bare, and there simply wouldn't be an explanation for keeping it.
That, truly, is the worst aspect of this sequence of events. The IOC has shown itself to be so bloated, corrupt and devoid of oversight that it would allow the pet projects of its individual members to take priority over even money.
Truly, the people who invested time, research and money into pushing sports like baseball, wushu, karate, rugby and lacrosse should feel nothing but cheated by the position the IOC put them in. While tensions ran high for months for the many lifelong wrestling aficionados, passions run no less deep in other sports. Samaranch and the cronies in the IOC, however, denied them any opportunity to truly state their case.
Unfortunately, there will be no recourse, reparations or second chances for all those robbed of a fair chance to see their sports in the Olympic Games in the next 11 years. Through no fault of their own, they will have to wait for another chance at being strangled with red tape.
At that point, this entire ugly process will begin anew.