Wrestling may be back in the rings

All is not lost for one of the oldest Olympic disciplines as rival politicians form an unlikely tag team

Alan Hubbard
Sunday 24 February 2013 01:00

The attempt to throw out wrestling, one of the original Olympic sports, from the Games has sparked an international row resulting in the unlikeliest of coalitions, with Russia, the United States and Iran joining forces to declare war on the International Olympic Committee.

All three are influential wrestling nations mightily peeved that they are in danger of being jocked off the 2020 Games. The Cold War may be long gone but who could visualise the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, better known for throwing his weight around on the judo mat, making up a tag team with the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who himself had an 11-year career as a wrestler, in an attempt to put the armlock on Jacques Rogge?

Moreover, they have Iran as an ally egging them on, supported by calls from the Indian and Turkish prime ministers and the president of Brazil in a remarkable grip-and-grapple protest movement.

Iran, where the US team are currently competing, said this week it is joining other powerful wrestling nations in a bid to reverse the IOC decision to drop it from the core programme for the 2020 Games. Iran won three wrestling medals at the London Olympics, the US took four and Russia was top nation with 11, including four golds.

Whether this astonishing alliance can register three falls or a submission over the IOC depends on the outcome of the Committee's Executive Board meeting in St Petersburg from 29-31 May.

There they will have to throw their hat into the ring with the seven other sports – baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, squash, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu – currently bidding for inclusion on the 2020 programme, in making presentations to the IOC.

Following this, the Board will recommend three sports on which the full membership can vote in Buenos Aires in September. Wrestling's prospects were not looking healthy, but now some big guns are being fired on its behalf.

Putin has immediately flexed his renowned muscles by helping to set up the new International Wrestling Committee to co-ordinate a campaign which has forced the resignation of Rafael Martinetti, the long-time Swiss head of the sport's governing body Fila. The president said on Russian TV: "I am fully behind the move to restore wrestling to its rightful place in the rich tradition of Olympic sport and our Russian heritage."

The 80-year-old Rumsfeld has penned a strongly worded open letter to the IOC. Writing in The Washington Post, he argues: "Wrestling is unlike any other athletic activity… and to abandon this great Olympic legacy would be a tragedy for the sport and for the proud tradition of the Olympic Games. The IOC have been overcome by 'kumbaya' thinking and should restore wrestling to the 2020 line-up."

Rumsfeld knows what he is talking about, because he was a wrestling champion at Princeton University who tried unsuccessfully to make the US Olympic squad in 1956. He claims the sport "once was a favourite of Abraham Lincoln's" and that he was not the only wrestling US president. Others who made it into the White House included George Washington (a school champion in Fredericksburg, Virginia), Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant, Chester A Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who "mastered a wicked move called the Flying Marc that savagely flipped an opponent to the ground".

Wrestling is one of the very foundations of the Olympic movement, both ancient and modern, dating back to 704 BC. Ironically it was part of the original pentathlon, the modern version of which was favourite for the proposed chop when the Executive Board met in Lausanne recently. But a fiercely argued case by Juan Antonio Samaranch, a vice-president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union and son of the former IOC president of the same name, apparently helped save it.

In fact, a piece I wrote in The Independent on Sunday recently, suggesting it would be an insult to throw Baron de Coubertin's baby out with the bathwater, was circulated among IOC members and, according to Martin Dawe, vice-chairman of Modern Pentathlon GB, caused "a flurry of activity worldwide".

I also understand that the scandal around British Wrestling's policy of recruiting "Plastic Brits"– and they were not alone internationally in playing fast and loose with passports of convenience in this respect – did not help wrestling's cause.

What might influence the IOC now is the fact that the sport has brought together arch foes America and Iran in the common cause, alongside Russia –a feat the United Nations can only dream of. Knowing Rogge's passion for achieving such international unity through sport, wrestling's cause may not be lost.

Surprisingly, we've heard barely a peep from the Greeks and Romans, who famously lent their names to one of the sport's two disciplines.

Some believe the uncertain future of sports like wrestling could be avoided if the IOC changed their charter and moved some indoor contact sports (such as wrestling, boxing, judo and taekwondo) to the winter Games. This would lighten an overloaded summer Games programme and also add TV interest in the winter Games, which are a turn-off for those nations who don't spend half their year skiing down mountains.

The idea has been mooted before, notably with boxing – prompted by the US TV network NBC, anxious to attract more viewers to the winter Games. After this outburst of wrestlemania, could it be one the IOC are finally forced to get to grips with?

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