Posted February 26, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Unifying power of wrestling

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A bit of trivia to start off the day -- name the last time that the following countries were aligned in unanimous agreement on a subject, any subject: the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Japan, India, Germany and Cuba.

Once upon a time, I was a fairly dedicated history major in college, yet I freely admit that I'm stumped by that question. Or at least, I was before these past couple weeks. That's when this unlikely alliance of nations, among others, began to band together in defense -- not of sovereignty or personal liberties, oil interests or economic partnerships. Nope, amazing partnership of widely disparate countries is in response to a common threat, a real danger to the peace and prosperity of all affected -- that enemy, of course, is the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

News of the IOC's decision to drop wrestling from the list of 25 confirmed sports for the 2020 Summer Olympics provoked a shocked outcry from the national wrestling federations of the above-named countries and others, as the idea that a sport so long associated with the Games (having taken place in some for or another since 1904) could be summarily stricken from the international competition.

Japan, one of the favorites to host the 2020 Games, is just the latest in the growing number of countries banding together to save wrestling as an Olympic sport. Japan, like its wrestling allies, has historically been quite good at the sport, and dropping it would likely have a negative impact on that country's hopes of piling up Olympic medals in front of a home crowd.

That's really the common denominator -- success -- among the countries now clamoring to rescue wrestling from the Olympic scrap heap. As it stands now, wrestling joins seven other short-listed sports hoping to make the cut as the 26th and final addition to the 2020 Games. So among wrestling, baseball/softball (a combined entry), karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and something called wushu, only one will emerge as a medal competition seven years from now.

Previously, wrestling had enjoyed the protected status of a "core" Olympic sport, which the IOC stripped with its decision earlier this month. Those still rated as "core" sports are the following: archery, athletics, aquatics, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian, fencing, field hockey, football (soccer, that is), gymnastics, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, table tennis, taekwondo, triathlon, volleyball and weightlifting.

I make no judgments on the above list of "core" sports, recognizing that my particular nationality and background left the previous decision to drop baseball and softball (voted out in 2005) a veritable outrage, while cutting something like badminton would, I suspect, garner a collective yawn from the majority of my fellow Americans.

The IOC's 15-member executive board is tasked with making these decisions, trying to balance the interests of numerous nations by continually maintaining and, if necessary, updating the slate of Olympic sports. That august body factors in issues like ticket sales, television ratings and worldwide participation, among others, and apparently wrestling did not score high enough to push out modern pentathlon or taekwondo -- reportedly the other core sports potentially on the chopping block.

If the seemingly universal condemnation of that decision is any indication, the IOC got this one wrong. While wrestling might not be spectator-friendly on an international level, the sport's passionate following among those who do follow the sport is becoming all too apparent to the suddenly besieged IOC. In the U.S., wrestling certainly doesn't have that sort of passionate following, but as a participatory sport it ranks in the top six among high school boys athletes, and is one of the fastest growing high school sports for both boys and girls in the country. Perhaps some of those other favored sports do rate higher in some measurements among casual fans of the Games, but when wrestling rates as "the national sport" in countries ranging from Mongolia to Cuba the anger and disappointment at this decision should have been considered as well.

Maybe that was the case, and the IOC is prepared to weather what promises to be a sustained and unified assault to reverse its decision. Then again, perhaps the IOC might reconsider what may well have been a rash decision. It will have that chance, as wrestling along with the other seven sports angling for an Olympic invite will make presentations to the IOC's board in May. The IOC will then select which of the eight sports to recommend to the 125th IOC session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for inclusion in the 2020 Games. That final decision and the announcement will take place in September along with the announcement of the host city.

Regardless of the outcome, expect wrestling's governing body -- the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) -- to mount a tenacious defense. FILA has an impressive array of international backing. Whether that will be enough won't be revealed until September.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>

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