The international Olympic Committee is set to decide whether wrestling is to be dropped from the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Wrestling fans from the US, Russia and Iran have been lobbying hard for it to stay.
Wrestling was one of the sports in the Olympic Games of ancient Greece and of the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896. When the IOC executive board voted in a secret ballot in February in Lausanne to recommend dropping it, there was an international outcry.
Wrestling fan and author John Irving expressed outrage at the proposal, arguing there was no logic in ousting wrestling but retaining a sport like the modern Pentathlon, which combines shooting, riding, running and fencing.
“More countries won medals in wrestling than competed in the modern pentathlon. Globally, the TV audience for wrestling averages 23 million viewers. The modern pentathlon averages 12.5 million,” Irving wrote in the New York Times.
Lalovic, the president of the international wrestling federation, has pushed through radical reforms
“We saw that there were serious problems with the way the international wrestling federation was being managed, but there were also problems with the rules and regulations of that sport,” said German IOC board member Thomas Bach in an attempt to justify the recommendation.
What happened since February was that reforms of the regulations were pushed through at record speed, accompanied by a worldwide image campaign.
“It took on an incredible momentum,” Manfred Werner, the President of the German wrestling federation told DW.
Only two days after the IOC recommendation, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) replaced their leadership. Nenad Lalovic from Serbia took over as interim President and began lobbying with the IOC.
In May FILA reformed its rules and regulations and invested three million dollars into an image campaign. As part of the publicity campaign the US wrestling association organized an event in which wrestlers from Iran, Russia and the United States fought at an unusual venue: New York's Grand Central Station.
Wrestlers from Iran and the United States competed in an international wrestling match at Vanderbilt Hall inside of Grand Central Terminal New York City
The efforts seem to have paid off: “The association seems to have understood the criticism that led to our recommendation and has reacted well,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Germany's Manfred Werner looking going into the Buenos Aires session.
The two other sports lobbying for the spot in the 2020 games, squash and baseball, lack the international backing – and the financial clout – the wrestlers have.
Squash is trying to get in for the first time. It has the backing of tennis stars Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki. High-tech show courts with glass walls were developed to make the matches more attractive to an international audience.
Baseball was part of the Olympic Games from 1992 to 2008 before they failed to secure a majority of the vote at the IOC meeting 2005 in Singapore. This was the first time a sport was dropped, since 1936.
Wrestling goes into the vote on September 8 as clear favorite, if bookmakers in Britain are anything to go by; they see wrestling ahead of squash and then baseball by a very clear margin.