Earlier this month the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics forward. Wrestling has been contested at nearly every Olympic Games beginning with the Ancient Games in 708 BC. Wrestling is a pure sport and in the Ancient Games the competitors actually wrestled in the nude with the winners receiving a crown of laurel wreath.
When the modern Olympics resumed in Athens, Greece in 1896 wrestling was included and with the exception of the Games in 1900 when wrestling was not on the program, the Olympics have featured wrestling every year since 1904. Women’s wrestling was introduced at the Athens Games in 2004.
However, the IOC has been under some pressure to reduce the number of events and athletes at the Summer Games, which are very crowded. The IOC recognizes “core sports” at the Olympics and there were 26 core sports prior to the decision to eliminate wrestling as a core sport. This relegates wrestling to “non-core sport” status. This means that wrestling will have to compete with other non-core sports such as baseball, softball, squash, karate and wake boarding.
This does not necessarily mean that wrestling will be eliminated from the competition calendar as local organizing committees can add non-core sports with IOC approval. Moreover, the international governing body for wrestling is FILA and they were astonished by the IOC decision.
FILA released a statement following the IOC decision and indicated that they would take all measures necessary to insure that the IOC reconsiders its decision to eliminate wrestling from the competition. There is certainly a strong argument to be made by FILA since wrestling was one of the founding sports of the Ancient and Modern Olympic Games.
One might make the argument that wrestling is one of the few pure sports in the Olympics. Two athletes of equal weight enter a confined space and using their technical skills, training and conditioning, one athlete emerges as Olympic Champion. There is no judging (like gymnastics or figure skating) and the sport allows athletes of all sizes and genders to compete for Olympic gold.
There may also be a more subtle agenda involved in this decision. Gender equity may play a role as one group is trying to replace a dual gender sport like wrestling with a women’s only sport, netball.
Over the decades Russia and the United States have dominated wrestling especially in the freestyle category. Greco-Roman wrestling has been dominated by Russia, Finland and Sweden over the years. However, wrestling does not enjoy broad international participation like track and field or basketball. Less than 60 countries send wrestling teams to the Olympics.
Another consideration regarding this decision is the ever present power of television. It is no secret that golf was added to the Olympics to enhance television ratings. And make no mistake about it. The Olympics is about television and the substantial revenue derived from lucrative television contracts. Wrestling does not enjoy high television ratings in part because more popular sports dominate prime time programming slots.
American coaches and wrestlers from high school to the Olympic level expressed their shock and concern with the IOC decision. Many believe that the decision will be overturned with a strong lobbying effort by FILA and friends of the sport. However, the decision by the IOC is not only controversial but could ultimately have an impact on other sports at the Olympics depending on future compromises that may have to be made to accommodate or eliminate wrestling. Stay tuned. The final chapter of this story has yet to be written.