On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it plans to cut wrestling* from the games starting in 2020. This has upset dedicated fans of the sport, especially after seeing some of the other events that managed to survive. The exclusion of a sport so ubiquitous among humanity demonstrates the way in which the modern Olympics is shaped more by political expediency and spectator demand than anything else.
The modern Olympic movement, started in June 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin, was meant to promote ideals like personal excellence and international brotherhood through sport.
Modeled loosely on the ancient Greek games, wrestling was a natural choice. It’s important to note that while the ancient Greek games had one event we could properly consider wrestling, the modern games have two: freestyle and Greco-Roman.
Freestyle and Greco-Roman, along with Judo, represent the dominant forms of grappling internationally.
Despite wrestling’s universality, it doesn’t generate the kind of marketing revenue other events bring in.
The IOC and its affiliated organizations are funded privately by selling broadcast rights, direct sponsorship, licensing official merchandise, and ticket sales.
This funding system means the IOC is sensitive to what the spectators want to see. Sports that don’t have a huge spectator following simply can’t sell the ads and endorsements; this was definitely a knock against Olympic wrestling.
But what probably hurt wrestling the most was politics.
The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) is the international governing body for both f0eestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. The organization sets rules, holds tournaments, and represents the two styles within the international Olympic movement.
Apparently, FILA’s failure to play politics is what allowed the sport to get discontinued at the Olympics.
The IOC has been looking to drop old sports and bring in some fresh blood for some time now. Bringing in new events is a way to create buzz and drive up interest. With a relatively limited fanbase and essentially no political advocacy within the IOC, wrestling wound up with it’s head on the chopping block.
Fortunately, there might be a way back into the games if the wrestling community can rally and FILA can get its act together.
Wrestling will be able to make a presentation along with potential new sports for inclusion in the 2020 games. But having just been voted out, the fight will be all uphill.
That said, if there is one thing a good wrestlers know how to do, it’s fight their way out of a tough spot.
To all my wrestling friends out there, you better get started. Short time.
*For purposes of this article, I differentiate between ‘Olympic Wrestling’ (meaning Freestyle and Greco-Roman) and ‘wrestling’ or ‘grappling’ in a general sense.