FILA, the IOC, and the fate of Olympic Wrestling

Ryan Pierse

On Tuesday, The International Olympic Committee Executive Board voted to eliminate Wrestling from its Olympic program as of the 2020 Summer Games. FILA, wrestling's governing and protective body, did little to prevent this. The sport of wrestling now has until May to save its status as an Olympic sport. This article examines what we know about the situation, and engages in reasoned speculation as to how it might play out.

I'm not going to use this article to discuss how dearly I love Olympic Wrestling. It is no secret that I think Wrestling, perhaps the world's oldest sport, is also its greatest, and that Olympic Wrestling is its highest incarnation. I'm not going to go into a lengthy discourse about the joy that Olympic Wrestling brings me; I'll only briefly mention the thrill of watching 'Old Glory' being draped from the shoulders of one of my beloved American Wrestlers.

Nor will I mention much about how Wrestling saved me. I won't spend a bunch of time discussing how Wrestling took me from a lost and angry youngster and gave me focus, purpose, identity and most of all, hope. Wrestling gave me hope that no matter what I was given, or not given, I could achieve any goal by nothing more than a strong will and devotion. I'm not going to bring up the fact that the sport of wrestling has done the same thing to young men, and now young women, across the entire globe. I'm not going to say a thing about how killing Olympic Wrestling could prevent the sport of Wrestling from saving thousands and thousands more youths.

Most of all, I won't utter many words on how Olympic Wrestling is the crown jewel of a sport that is a crucial part of the heritage of the human race. I'll stay mostly silent about Wrestling as a true international language - a language which effortlessly spans the gaps between East and West, rich and poor, among creeds and nationalities.

I'm only going to discuss cold hard facts. Facts such as the real way Olympic Wrestling is going to be saved between now and the final meeting in Russia in May. Wrestling can't be saved by petitions, Facebook pages and letter writing campaigns - at least not alone. At the end of this all, if wrestling is saved, it will only be by one thing and one thing only: money. We will only be able to return wrestling to the Olympic program by fattening the wallets of the IOC, or by wielding pressure which can deplete these same wallets. Wrestling now needs leadership which can raise the funds to do the former, or aggregate the influence to do the latter.

Those are the only ways I see to save Wrestling, but it is possible that the fifteen members of the IOC Executive Board - mostly composed of blue blooded Western Europeans - are so rich and so out of touch that nothing can be done to impact their reasoning.

There was no good reason to drop wrestling

At their meeting to vote on the sport to eliminate from the program, the members of the IOC were asked to exclude a sport based on 39 criteria clumped into eight categories (PDF link, thanks to commetor greco roman airlines). Here are some of the following criteria listed by a report based on data culled from the 2008 Olympics:

Television ratings - According to this post on Sportsmyriad, which examined the statistics from the IOC report, Wrestling -- during the average minute of TV viewership -- received about 30 million viewers worldwide, Modern Pentathlon (the next in line to be axed) averaged about 7 million less.

Ticket sales - The wrestling venue at London was packed to the gills. (Editor's note: Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854 available.)

Anti-doping - A single Wrestler from the 2012 games tested positive and was stripped of his medal

Global participation - Wrestling has at least 167 active national federations. Modern Pentathlon has 104

Popularity- What does this even mean? How do you even quantify popularity if not by viewership and the number of federations, both of which favor wrestling?

Not a single criterion the IOC claims to use here for the elimination of a sport could be used to single out wrestling.

Out from the beginning

Even though Wrestling was considered to be on the fringe of consideration for elimination before the IOC met, Wrestling received the most votes in every one of the five rounds where the IOC voted for the sport to be excluded.

It almost seems as though members of the IOC arrived at their meeting knowing full well whom they were going to be voting off the island.

Fairness and Impartiality over the decision felt lacking.

FILA was caught totally unaware

FILA, international Wrestling's governing body, had no clue Wrestling was at real risk and did little or no lobbying on behalf of their sport before the IOC met.

Look, I'm a big fan of FILA Vice-President and American world champion wrestler Stan Dziedzic, but I'd have to imagine that even he would have to admit the FILA dropped the ball here.

FILA exists to prevent this very thing from happening. If they can't prevent wrestling from being removed from the Olympic program, then they are failing at their existential purpose. How could they stand around and watch while other sports were lobbying the IOC? What the hell were they thinking?

FILA was either negligent or reckless here, as they either disregarded a risk they were aware of or never noticed a risk they should not have missed. They totally and irrevocably soiled their metaphorical sheets and mattress.

Now they are going to meet in a few days in the resort town of Phuket, Thailand to discuss their battle plans.

What it may mean for MMA and American wrestling

Some MMA fans are engaging in some 'on the bright side' reasoning and figuring that an end to Olympic Wrestling will be a gain for Mixed Martial Arts. The idea is that Wrestling's elite will enter a fighting career earlier and round out their game with striking and other grappling disciplines at a younger age.

These fans should be very careful in thinking this way.

First off, the death of Olympic Wrestling will likely devastate international participation in Wrestling. We haven't seen many non-American world class Wrestlers in MMA at all, and without Olympic Wrestling, we won't see many more.

Second, outside of baseball and softball, you cannot name a non-revenue college sport sponsored by the NCAA that does not have an analogue in the Olympic games (even golf now). College Wrestling, even if it is technically a different sport than Olympic Wrestling, benefits from its association with a currently contested Olympic event. The elimination of Olympic Wrestling would make College Wrestling a non-Olympic, non-Revenue sport. I'd have to imagine that this is not the best position to occupy. I do not know what this will mean for the future of college wrestling in terms of participation, number of programs and institutional support; it may have minimal impact, but it certainly won't be a positive impact.

The bottom line is that the elimination of Olympic Wrestling could hurt College Wrestling, and if it hurts College Wrestling, it could hurt American Wrestling across the board on down to the pee wees learning how to Granby roll with shoes covered in Pokemon stickers. That potential talent pool MMA fans are focusing on could be dramatically depleted. Without Olympic wrestling, it is quite likely that MMA will see fewer elite wrestlers join its ranks either as coaches or as competitors and this is not a good thing.

What I really think is happening and how this will end

- The IOC isn't necessarily the most perceptive when it comes to the nuance of sports. Some voting members don't see any difference between softball and baseball and have thusly forced them into a single governing body and the committees as a whole definitely do not get why there are two styles of Olympic wrestling. To the IOC, men's Wrestling is one sport with a bloated fourteen weight classes. FILA understands that the IOC feels this way and has taken steps, via rule changes, to create distinction between Freestyle and Greco. These rule changes were made to save Greco-Roman wrestling, but, ironically, have ruined it as a sport. The new rules incentivize passive and defensive wrestling and make the sport nigh unwatchable.

In 2002, an IOC review essentially told FILA to get rid of a wrestling style (i.e. Greco) because having two was confusing the casual viewing audience. FILA stood up for itself and retained both styles. I believe that the IOC's decision to eliminate Wrestling may be something of a power move designed to show other sports what happens when their wishes are not complied with. The IOC may just want to show the Olympic universe that they are not to be defied, and that they are willing to oust even the most venerable and cherished elements of the Olympic program in order to mete out vindictive action.

- I also suspect that the IOC may essentially be holding Wrestling for ransom. There is no such thing as too much cynicism when dealing with an organization such as this. There are very wealthy patrons of Wrestling among the energy rich areas around the Black and Caspian Seas. All this may just be the IOC's means of saying, "Wrestling is not very valuable to us, let's see how valuable it is to people in other parts of the world."

What I predict will happen

I believe that Wrestling will amass the requisite amount of money and influence and will return, but in the process FILA will comply with the IOC's 2002 request and eliminate Greco. Though there is no appeal process in place that could allow the IOC to reverse their decision, I can foresee some sort of 'special meeting' taking place to announce this decision before the May meeting in Russia to vote on the 'new' sport admitted to the games. The limit of 25 'core' Olympic sports which the IOC has promulgated is completely arbitrary, and there is no reason the IOC cannot allow an additional sport on the program.

Or maybe they'll just readmit wrestling at the expense of climbing, in-line skating, wushu, or wake boarding.

Yes, wrestling could be replaced with wake boarding. I think that it won't

I hope I'm right.


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