What did we do to deserve this? That’s the question many people within the world of freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are asking themselves today after the shocking announcement that their beloved sport would be dropped from the Olympic program after 2016. The unprecedented announcement seemingly came out of nowhere, as the International Olympic Committee was not expected to vote on such decisions until September of this year, when the lineup of Olympic sports would be examined and tweaked. The timing of the announcement isn’t the only curious element; the motives of the IOC remain, by and large, a mystery to those it affects the most.
Several sports were known to be on the chopping block, with the modern pentathlon and taekwondo considered by experts to be the most at risk. The federations that govern those sports have been working vigorously to sell the IOC on remaining included. This is what is so surprising about the drop; the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) made no such pitch. As a foundation sport that has been around since the inception of the Olympics in ancient Greece, right through to the very first modern Games in 1896, it was seemingly a given that wrestling would always be involved. Evidently FILA has taken their clout for granted.
With the IOC refusing to divulge their reasons for making the move, it leaves the door open for rampant speculation. Many believe that the issue stems from the IOC’s longing for a more youthful demographic. Extreme sports like rock climbing, wakeboarding, and roller sports are all up for inclusion in 2020, and those would all attract a much younger audience than wrestling. The controversial aspect of this, however, is that viewership was not necessarily that low, only low in North America. Wrestling is actually one of the most diverse and watched sports at the games, bringing in over 300 competitors from 71 countries in 2012, many of which have a drastically higher viewership than we see here domestically.
Even here in Canada, wrestling has become an Olympic staple. Canucks have medalled in wrestling at every Olympic games since 1992. Wrestling Canada has vowed to “not go down without a fight, ” and they are not alone in their stance. In Iran for example, wrestling is the national sport, and its removal from the Games would be akin to Canada losing Olympic hockey.
Wrestling will immediately throw itself into the running for inclusion in 2020, an unlikely scenario that would keep fans from missing out on seeing their favorite sport on the grandest stage. The IOC will hear pitches in May from several Olympic hopefuls, among them are other combat sports such as karate and wushu, along with squash, wakeboarding, and baseball/softball, which is trying to make a similar return after being dropped in 2008. The odds of wrestling being reinstated before missing at least one Games are unfortunately slim to none. The official vote on which sports will round out the 2016 lineup happens in September.
Regardless of the motivations for wrestling’s removal, the fact remains that they cannot be motivated on the basis of the purity of sport, which is one of the fundamental values that once defined the Olympic Games. Wrestling is synonymous with the Olympics, and remains one of the purest forms of athletic competition. There are no tools, no equipment, simply two individuals squaring off to decide who is better. It is one of the cheapest and easiest sports for a youngster to pick up at the grass roots level, as the startup cost is next to nothing, but without a viable end game for kids to aspire to, how many of them will be inspired to take it up in the first place? That’s one of a multitude of questions raised by a decision that seems so counterintuitive to the Olympic spirit, and one that will be a massive blow to the sport worldwide.