For wrestlers and wrestling fans, it’s hard to get a grasp on the International Olympic Committee’s decision in February to remove wrestling as a core Olympic sport… only to put the sport back in the Olympic programme for the 2020 and 2024 Games on Sunday.
Now, it’s true that the first decision was a product of the IOC Executive Committee, while Sunday’s vote was the result of a vote of the entire IOC membership. That might be comparable to, say, the branch office in Toledo making a decision that affects an entire corporation, only to have headquarters override that decision after dealing with negative fallout.
Canadian IOC member Dick Pound appeared to echo that sentiment. After the IOC vote to reinstate wrestling, Pound said, "The result is we are back where we started and they've spent a lot of time and energy — emotional or otherwise — in a process that was pretty well doomed. This doesn't happen in the IOC too often, but that vote is to tell the executive committee: you made a mess of this and we're going to fix the mess and we've got to figure out another way forward."
Prior to Sunday's vote to reinstate wrestling to the Olympics, the IOC's initial decision had been called “shock therapy” for the sport. Another possible analogy that might explain what happened would be to describe it as a trial separation for a couple. One partner gets fed up with the other leaving dirty clothes on the floor, or not doing a fair share of the housework. Perhaps the partner has quietly and politely made suggestions: “Perhaps you should change the rules to make matches more exciting and easier for fans to understand,” or “Why not consider expanding opportunities for women?” Or “Maybe you could do something about those all-too-revealing uniforms.”
Now we’re mixing metaphors here. However, like a couple where one partner has made suggestions and cajoled and nagged the other about making changes for the good of the relationship, perhaps the IOC thought its recommendations to FILA, the international governing body for wrestling, were falling on deaf ears and being ignored. Realizing that previous attempts at implementing change were going nowhere, the IOC insisted on what amounted to a trial separation, in essence, saying to wrestling, “Pack up your stuff and get out of the Olympics.”
FILA, wrestlers, coaches, officials and fans were stunned. Then angry. They complained to anyone who would listen… for a couple days. Then the wrestling community did what you’d expect wrestlers to do when in a predicament: they got up off the mat and got to work. One of FILA’s first decisions was to send their long-time president packing, replacing an ineffectual leader with one who was at once more dynamic and approachable in the form of Nenad Lelovic. Then the organization made other changes within its own home, renovating its governing structure by installing former Olympic wrestlers, women and business leaders into key positions.
FILA then set about to change the rules, all with an eye to eliminating seemingly arbitrary aspects that could impact the outcome of the match (“ball grab,” anyone?) and, more significantly, increasing the action… which is good news not just for wrestlers, but to fans, too.
Furthermore, to answer another criticism of the IOC, FILA revised the weight classes so there are now an equal number of weight classes for women’s freestyle, men’s freestyle, and men’s Greco-Roman. Yes, each of the men’s categories gave up a weight class… but the result not only looks more fair to the outside world… it IS more fair.
FILA also worked hard to put a better face on the sport. They upgraded their website, increased their presence in social media, produced a new brochure and advertising campaign to promote the many positive aspects of wrestling, and enlisted Hollywood stars and past Olympic athletes from various sports (not just wrestling) to make a case for the oldest and greatest sport. They even started to explore ways to make wrestling more telegenic, more attractive to channel surfers… taking a hard look at everything from the design and décor of wrestling venues, to the gear wrestlers wear onto the mat.
Now that the entire IOC membership has voted wrestling back into the Olympics, the seven-month trial separation appears to be over. We can imagine this won’t be the end of “constructive criticism” from the IOC directed at FILA (“When will do something about those singlets!”) but, hopefully, the continued dialog between the two organizations will make wrestling better for the athletes and fans… and even attract more fans to the fold.
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