Wrestling, like so many of those who have competed in the sport that dates back to the dawn of the Ancient Olympics in 776 B.C., relied on a potent combination of strength, sweat and competitive savvy to secure the final spot in the 2020 and ’24 Games.
An International Olympic Committee vote Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, convincingly selected wrestling over baseball-softball and squash for the two Summer Games that follow 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Many of the biggest American names in the sport exhaled as the enormous threat to the sport dissolved, but cautioned that the sport’s work had only just started.
The question: What’s next for wrestling, a staple of the Games that shuddered at the prospect of teetering on the brink of Olympic elimination?
“I hope we don’t say, ‘Whew’ — but keep moving forward,” said Kevin Jackson, Iowa State’s coach who won a gold medal in 1992 and coached U.S. freestyle teams at the 2004 and ’08 Games. “This created a platform. We got more media attention from being dropped from the program, than any time in history. What do we do with that?”
Wresting survives 7-month process
Wrestling’s Olympic status had been threatened when the IOC’s executive committee voted to remove the sport’s status as one of 25 core sports after Rio de Janeiro during a meeting Feb. 12.
The suddenly imperiled sport, with an Olympic history that also includes participation at the first Modern Games in 1896, was forced to re-evaluate everything — from leadership of its governing body, to gender balance and the complexity of its rules.
Eight sports groups were whittled to three — baseball-softball, squash, wrestling — at an IOC gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia, in May. The sports eliminated in May: karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and the martial art of wushu.
Wrestling won Sunday’s vote in one round, earning 49 votes to eclipse the simple majority of 48 that was required for passage.
The secret ballot of the 95 IOC members who eventually participated in the vote provided a vote of confidence for wrestling supporters — easily outdistancing baseball-softball (24) and squash (22).
The result validated an unprecedented push to re-imagine the sport in time to sway global voters. The governing body known as FILA immediately replaced president Raphael Martinetti with Serbia’s Nenad Lalovic, revamped a complex and confusing set of rules, and increased opportunities for women.
The New York Times reported that the worldwide public relations push — which drew in supporters as diverse as TV’s Jay Leno, author John Irving and U.S. Sen. and one-time comedian Al Franken — had the potential to approach $2 million.
The news was particularly impacting in Iowa, where an estimated 7,000 high school athletes competed in the sport last season. Every ticket for the multi-session NCAA Championships held in Des Moines last March was sold in 14 minutes.
Dan Gable, the legendary college coach at Iowa who won a freestyle wrestling gold medal in 1972, said confidence about the outcome gave way to relief.
“It was almost like I started to have this feeling of anxiety, I started to have this feeling where I could break down a little bit like eternal joy,” said Gable, “(But) it was almost like our people did such a good job, I expected to hear, ‘Wrestling.’ ”
If baseball-softball or squash had been selected, Gable said the impact would be profound — personally and in broader ways as it rippled across the sport.
“If it wouldn’t have went that way, then I would have been jolted pretty heavily,” he said.
Olympic star Gardner ‘Seize the spotlight’
Whispers that wrestling had positioned itself as a favorite heading into the IOC vote was viewed cautiously by those closest to the sport.
Wrestling had come to be viewed as entitled, disengaged and lazy at the FILA level, which many felt slowly crumbled its Olympic status over time. Lalovic, the new FILA boss, told the Des Moines Register earlier this year that no one from the organization that he later would be called to leaded attended the Feb. 12 meeting, despite it being a mere 15 miles away on the shore of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva.
Jordan Burroughs, a freestyle wrestling gold medalist for the United States last August in London, said the uncertainty of the process left him unusually rattled.
“I was sweating. Imagine the most suspenseful movie you’ve ever watched,” said Burroughs, who also won a world championships and is prepared to defend his crown this month in Budapest, Hungary. “I was on the edge of my seat. The end of the movie was the best ending to any movie I’ve ever seen, though.”
Rulon Gardner provided wrestling one of its most enduring Olympic moments when he stunned Russian star Alexander Karelin in the discipline known as Greco-Roman at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Gardner immediately turned his doused anxiety into a call for action.
“I was 1,000 percent nervous,” he said. “Everyone felt good, but I didn’t feel any kind of good. When politics are involved, you can’t take anything for granted. We kind of felt we were wrestling, so we were kind of owed something.
“Now there’s a chance to show the world how amazing this sport is. We need to seize that opportunity, and seize that spotlight.”
Sport evolves, avoids ‘devastating’ loss
Wrestling’s three-pronged approach to winning the IOC vote included top-level leadership changes, increased gender equity that included the addition of two weight classes for women’s freestyle and re-imagining rules that befuddled fans and even some competitors.
Rule changes were immediately implemented to increase offensive scoring and action, making a move called a takedown worth two points rather than one. The structure of matches for the Summer Olympics in Rio will be two, 3-minute periods with cumulative scoring, as opposed to three, 2-minute periods that led some wrestlers with early leads to compete conservatively.
Oklahoma State coach John Smith, one of the most accomplished Olympic wrestlers in history with a streak of six straight world or Olympic titles, said he’s already noticed more responsiveness from the sport’s top leaders.
“I like the fact that FILA is listening,” Smith said. “I’ve probably had more input on the rules in the last six months as a coach, than I did in the last 20 years. I like that. When rules were coming down, I was asked my opinion.
“Everyone didn’t get everything they wanted, but it’s better and you feel like you’re definitely a part of the process of improving your sport.”
Wrestling has been an anchor of the Olympics. There are 177 national federations on six continents, with a record 71 countries that qualified for the 2012 games with 29 nation’s capturing medals.
Until a vote more than 5,600 miles from Iowa on Sunday, though, many worried about whether that rich history would continue to grow.
Iowa State’s Jackson warned that the sport can ill afford to become complacent — and said potential impact of endangering the sport again could impact colleges and those far beyond international mats.
“I think it would trickle down to every level,” he said. “It would have a devastating effect.”
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller