The International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate wrestling for the 2020 and 2024 Games after threatening to remove the sport in an effort to increase interest in the summer event.
Wrestling was selected by IOC members at their annual meeting in Buenos Aires yesterday, receiving a majority 49 votes, 25 more than a joint bid from baseball and softball. Squash, the remaining candidate for inclusion, got 22 votes.
A part of the Olympics in both its ancient and modern formats, wrestling was forced to win back its spot after being surprisingly cut from the 2020 program in February. That decision sparked a global outcry, bringing together nations including the U.S., Iran and Russia to fight for its return.
“Wrestling has shown great passion and resilience in the last few months,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said. “They have taken a number of steps to modernize and improve their sport.”
In the six months since losing its Olympic status, wrestling made a series of changes to appease IOC members who demanded the sport refresh itself. After ousting its president, the sport’s governing body, known as FILA, changed rules to make bouts more broadcast-friendly, added weight categories to boost female participation and focused on adding women to its management body.
Wrestling has been part of the modern Olympic Games since their 1896 start. The sport was included in the ancient games in Olympia, Greece, as early as 708 B.C.
Pillow of History
“Every sport, even the oldest one like ours, must be updated and we failed to do so,” FILA President Nenad Lalovic said in interview before the vote. “We were sleeping all that time on the pillow of our history. That was our problem. You have to know your history, but in a way you can clearly see your future. We saw very well our history but we didn’t use that to see our future.”
Addressing the IOC membership in a final appeal yesterday, Lalovic said the vote was “the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport.”
By securing reinstatement, wrestling wrote a new chapter in Olympic history: it’s the first sport to earn an immediate return onto the games program.
“Normally this is done in a few years, we did it in a few months,” Lalovic said. “It was a question of our survival. We did all we could, we changed our sport and the federation was successful.”
Almost losing its Olympics spot has brought renewed interest in the sport, he said.
“Wrestling has been spoken about more in the last six months than during the last 60 years,” said Lalovic, a Serb who took over as FILA president in May. “If we move successfully from this crisis, this decision from the IOC will have had a big impact on our sport. It gave us the strength to show our strength by changing in such a short time.”
Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, said the sport’s February Olympic ouster had “woken a sleeping giant.”
“Those of us in the sport understand its greatness and the gravity of the sport,” Bender said in an interview. “We’ve been given the opportunity to preach the gospel of wrestling to a very broad audience now and I think the sport will be better for it.”
After the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling, high-profile followers of the sport such as actors Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher supported the campaign to prevent its demise. William Baldwin, the star of films including “Backdraft,” traveled to Buenos Aires as part of the Wrestling 2020 campaign team.
Baldwin said he and his friends in the movie business would be perfect partners as wrestling seeks ways to make itself more appealing to television viewers.
“When you’re talking about the style, the color, the fabrics, the lighting, how the cameras will be moving to make this more palatable for television, who better than us?” Baldwin said in an interview. “Obviously I have a very deep bench of friends that I could call that can help.”
Yesterday’s vote followed the award of the 2020 games to Tokyo the previous day. The IOC’s 125th session ends tomorrow with the election of a new president to replace Rogge, who is retiring after 12 years in the role.
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