Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive board removed a sport from the Olympic program and woke up to discover they had lit a bonfire. Tens of thousands worldwide leaped to the defense of wrestling, that most ancient sport, demanding that the decision be overturned, retaining for 2020 an event that is basic to human nature.
Indignation is rampant throughout Russia and Central Asian nations, Japan, Iran, Turkey and the U.S., all of which traditionally excel in the sport enshrined at Palestra, ancient wrestling arena and site of the lighting of the Olympic flame at Olympia.
In a genuine attempt to modernize, the EB has inadvertently cast a spear at history.
The U.S. wrestling federation has initiated a Facebook campaign for restoration, which within the first twenty four hours had accumulated almost 60,000 signatories. At the same time, an online petition, Save Wrestling, was being directed at the White House, another petition requesting President Barack Obama to boycott the 2020 Games!
Members of the EB acknowledged on Monday that they were surprised by the outcome of their own procedure.
Now comes an uncomfortable reckoning of how to prevent further rocking of the Olympic boat. Many are on edge.
Word comes that Turkey wishes to protest; but, how vigorously, when Istanbul is busy campaigning to be host for 2020?
Strangely, the conspicuous absence thus far is reaction from FILA, the international federation. FILA is itself partly to blame for the surprise outcome: over the past ten years the federation has done little to promote, expand, publicize, develop, modernize its activities. Its officers had been effectively invisible during the approach to the vote.
When it came to the EB’s decision, there was nobody leading the case for weightlifting: as the numbers whittled down to the last five sports to be retained, one to go, wrestling was stranded on the beach beyond the tide. This immediately raises the ethical aspect of conformity.
When IOC members are excluded from voting for their own country in a host-city election, should EB members with demonstrable association with a specific sport have been ineligible ?
Thomas Bach, IOC vice president, attempting to soften anxieties, said: ” The door is not closed, we have to consider carefully the future of wrestling.”
It could therefore be possible, say, for the EB to propose in May a choice of three new sports for 2020 — karate, squash and wrestling — and leave the final decision in the hands of the Session in September.
The loss to FILA is potentially immense. They forfeit the $16m they would have received from Rio 2016, an expected $20m from 2020. This syndrome of feared exclusion threatens the future of every sport on the fringe of the program.
The embarrassment for the IOC is that they have been skewered by their own constitutional procedure, vainly attempting for the past decade to modernize in the interest of contemporary youth, and having achieved only the inclusion of golf and rugby to the exclusion of baseball and softball.
Now, they are confronted with a mounting demand to restore – as a “new” sport from among another seven applicants – a sport they have just removed. Equally, the prospect of restoring baseball/softball – removed only in 2005 from the Games of 2008-12 — would seem equally contradictory.
Function within the current EB is compromised by the fact that almost half the members are viewed as presidential candidates in September, and therefore unwilling to go out on a limb on any current contentious issue. Unexpectedly vulnerable in the vote was hockey, while taekwondo, actively supported within the board, survived, as narrowly did modern pentathlon.
David Miller can be contacted through the Sport Intern newsletter. The Sport Intern in a blog produced by Karl-Heinz Huba in Lorsch, Germany. Mr. Huba can be reached via email at ISMG@aol.com. This article is reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Huba