The smart money had modern pentathlon going the way of croquet, motor boating, and tug-of-war on the Olympic scrap heap. How many people in the digital age care about a sport that mimics a 19th-century military courier’s quest to deliver a message by fencing, swimming, riding, shooting, and running? But a majority of the International Olympic Committee’s executive board decided Tuesday to recommend keeping founder Baron de Coubertin’s brainchild on the 2020 summer program and scrapping wrestling, which only goes back to antiquity.
Nobody on or off the mat saw this one coming. Running and wrestling are mankind’s most elemental sports, which is why they were at the heart of both the ancient and modern Games. But the IOC, intent upon “renewing and renovating” its sports menu by adding the likes of golf and rugby sevens for Rio de Janeiro, figured grappling is less relevant than taekwondo and field hockey, which reportedly were the other sports at risk.
The final decision won’t be made until the IOC’s annual session in September in Buenos Aires, where the members also will choose the 2020 site from among Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul. But the vote there only will be which sport to add from a list that includes baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding, and the Chinese martial art of wushu. The executive board will choose one of them at its May meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the full body later will vote thumbs up or down.
It’s conceivable that the IOC, upon reflection, will decide to put wrestling back on the program, but maybe the wushu folks have more political pull than we think. The Lords of the Rings, after all, voted to give next year’s Winter Games to Sochi, a Black Sea resort that has spring temperatures in the winter and where everything has had to be built from the ground up.
Olympic tradition aside, wrestling has most of the important qualities among the 39 criteria that the IOC’s program commission considered in its report. The biggest one is “universality” — how many countries on how many continents practice the sport, and how many of them are competitive at the Olympic level. By that standard, wrestling should have been immune.
More than 70 nations, from Algeria to Vietnam, competed in the 18 freestyle, greco-roman, and women’s events in London last summer, and 29 of them won medals. Mongolia may not have a field hockey team or anyone who can fence, swim, ride, shoot, and run on the same day, but it had a female wrestler good enough to make the podium.
By any empirical or historical yardstick, wrestling belongs as one of the Games’ 25 core sports. It is a classic, simple, inexpensive undertaking that is easy to understand and televise, and it makes for extraordinary human drama. Wyoming farmer Rulon Gardner’s gold-medal victory over “unbeatable” Russian superman Aleksandr Karelin in Sydney ranks among the most compelling moments in Olympic history.
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports,” Gardner told the Associated Press. “To get the death penalty out of nowhere . . . ”
What likely counted more than tradition when the executive board’s 15 members voted by secret ballot behind closed doors at Olympic headquarters in Switzerland was politics. Modern pentathlon, viewed as a five-ringed dinosaur in recent decades, knew that it was in trouble and lobbied hard to stay alive. And it had a powerful friend on the board in Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the longtime IOC chief and a vice president of the international federation. What also helped was that five of the other members had been athletes or officials of the sport’s five disciplines.
Wrestling had no advocate at the table, nor did the United States, which again was a major loser in the game of sporting musical chairs. Eight years ago, the Americans absorbed a double blow when two sports they invented, baseball and softball, were dumped. And while they no longer are as prominent in wrestling as they were a couple of decades ago with the likes of Bruce Baumgartner, John Smith, and Kevin Jackson, the Yanks still top the sport’s all-time table with 124 medals, 50 of them gold, four of them earned in London.
While the USOC has improved its diplomatic standing in Lausanne since Chicago’s bid was smacked down for the 2016 Games, it still doesn’t have clout where it counts.
There hasn’t been an American president of the IOC since Avery Brundage stepped down in 1972, and the country that underwrites the Olympic movement doesn’t have anyone on the executive board, where the real power resides.
“We knew that today would be a tough day for American athletes competing in whatever sport was identified by the IOC executive board,” said USOC executive director Scott Blackmun. “Given the history and tradition of wrestling and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced.
Dropping wrestling wasn’t designed as a takedown of Uncle Sam. Russia, which won 11 of its 82 London medals on the mat, was thrown for a loop, too, as were Iran and several other hotbeds of the sport.
The shade of de Coubertin undoubtedly was delighted that his military-courier fantasy stays in the Games. But his 21st century successors may want to be wary should they meet Milo of Croton in the netherworld. He was the five-time Olympic wrestling champ 2,500 years ago who is said to have trained by carrying a bull across his shoulders and then eating it for dinner.