Why The IOC Voted Wrestling Out, And What You Can Do About It

February 20, 2013

If you're an MMA fan and you're reading this post, then I probably don't have to tell you where I stand on the IOC's decision to remove Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling from the Olympics starting with the 2020 games.

It had been discussed as a possibility, but nobody thought they would actually do it. In fact, few even knew about it outside those that are involved with or closely follow the politics of the International Olympic Committee. Pockets of media outlets, in particular the MMA media, only picked up on the story the day before the vote. Even then, most assumed that there was no way the IOC would vote to eliminate a sport that was not only part of the first modern games in 1896, but also the ancient Greek competitions on which the modern games are based.

We were wrong.

There was outrage over the decision from not just amateur wrestling and MMA enthusiasts, but seemingly from the entire athletic community. After all, wrestling is the furthest thing from a niche sport, and the fact that it was treated as such by the Committee came as a real shock. At the last Olympic Games, twenty-nine different countries medaled in the sport.

So how did this happen? Better yet, why?

The Committee will tell you that they factored in things like modern relevance, international participation, television ratings, and other factors. As already mentioned, the idea that wrestling doesn't have global support is nonsense. Television ratings could be better, and perhaps the rules could be changed to make it more accessible, but the blame for poor ratings could also lie with the networks that have the rights to the games. I can't even convey to you how frustrating it was to try to find wrestling on television last Summer.

Before I move on to relevance, I want to take an aside here and say that burying other sports that are already or are vying to be a part of the Olympics is antithetical to bringing wrestling back. I won't ridicule a pre-existing sport, such as table tennis or badminton, or somehow suggest that participants in other sports are somehow less deserving of the world stage. For starters, it's disrespectful to the athletes that participate in them. I've been in the position of having to defend MMA to friends and acquaintances in the media and to people that work in the political arena, and it sucks. More importantly, it's beside the point.

It's not, for instance, the Modern Pentathlon's fault that the IOC treats the Olympics as a zero-sum game, where to add one sport you have to eliminate another. There's nothing in the Olympic Charter stating what number of sports should be in the Games. This magic number of twenty-six that the IOC came up with is inexplicable, particularly seeing as how eight years ago they had decided that the number was, instead, twenty-eight. Some argue that not having a capped limit on sports somehow decreases the prestige of others, but that's a specious argument. In terms of finances, it's not as if the Olympics are suffering on that end. It's not even what many would consider a nice, round number.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about the modern pentathlon in relation to what the Committee claims are the factors they weighed in their decision. Many people assume it's a track & field sport, but it isn't. It actually consists of pistol shooting, fencing, 200 meter freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, and a 3K cross-country foot race. It seems like a random assortment of sports, but it was created to showcase or mimic the expertise possessed by members of a cavalry. As such, its scope was and always will be inherently limited. It also, by its very nature, possesses a fiercely Western bias. I don't point that out to qualify it as being no longer relevant, since it at least shows that the sport has some sense of continuity in history and roots in competition and there is, arguably, room for growth as there is with any Olympic sport. But it does further call into question the IOC's claim that wrestling was dismissed over other sports on the basis of relevance, television ratings, and international participation.

In short, it's total hogwash. The truth of the matter is that it came down to the International Olympic Committee allowing politics to override common sense. However, just as much fault lies with FILA (the governing body that oversees international wrestling) for being naïve enough to think that politics didn't matter. The moment there was any inkling that wrestling could be in trouble, they should have been wining and dining members of the committee, which is exactly what the organization that oversees Modern Pentathlon did. They took a sport that most people didn't even know existed and were able to convince the committee to not only keep it, but keep it at the cost of wrestling.

Regardless of what should or should not have been done, we now find ourselves in a world without Olympic wrestling, as of the 2020 games. They could gain re-entry, but it's going to take a lot of hard work on the part of FILA and tons of sustained pressure from the public to make it happen.

Even if you think you don't care about amateur wrestling at the Olympic level, you should. The elimination of wrestling from the Olympics would mean less participation on the international level. That has a ripple effect for not just wrestling, but MMA, which sees the greatest growth and popularity in countries where grappling in some form has a strong foothold. Without wrestling to feed in strong athletes, MMA faces an uphill battle when it comes to Eastern expansion.It matters to MMA, it matters to amateur wrestling, and it matters to sports as a whole. We need to do everything we can to make the IOC see the error of its ways and have them overturn this decision.

Last Thursday, 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist and pro wrestling legend Kurt Angle made an appearance on Bellator MMA alongside Bjorn Rebney to make the public plea for support. You can help by signing TNA Wrestling's petition to #SaveOlympicWrestling at change.org/wrestling, and getting involved on the official facebook page for USA Wrestling, the national governing body for wrestling in the Olympics.

Image Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/ Getty Images Sport