Wrestling

Wrestling remains in Olympics, beats baseball-softball, squash in IOC vote

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Olympic wrestling is saved.

The sport was voted for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee on Sunday, seven months after it was recommended to be dropped from the Games.

Wrestling, part of the ancient Olympics and every modern Games save 1900, was heavily favored to beat out a joint baseball-softball bid and squash.

Wrestling won with a first-round total of 49 votes to baseball-softball’s 24 and squash’s 22. A majority of 48 votes were needed to win, or else it would have gone to a second round. The voting was done by secret ballot, just as Saturday’s 2020 host city election won by Tokyo.

“Thank you for this opportunity to save our sport of wrestling,” FILA president Nenad Lalovic said in wrestling’s presentation to the IOC at the Buenos Aires Hilton. “Today is the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport. And believe me, we feel the weight of that history. Remaining in the Olympic program is crucial to our survival.”

Wrestling’s inclusion means the Olympic sports program remains unchanged from 2016 to 2020. Rugby and golf were previously added for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

“The program must remain dynamic,” outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge said Sunday morning. “That is essential for the success of the Olympic Games.”

Wrestling’s fight is not over. It is not an Olympic “core sport” yet and only safe through 2024, for now.

“With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference,” Lalovic said in a FILA statement seconds after the vote. “I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now.”

Lalovic said wrestling will try to become a core sport again in four years.

Wrestling was recommended to be dropped from the Olympics on Feb. 12. Why? Rogge noted its shortcomings Sunday, saying it lacked athlete administrative representation, gender equality, had hard-to-understand rules and part of it was not as popular anymore. He didn’t mention it specifically, but Rogge is believed to have been referring to Greco-Roman wrestling’s decline.

“I cannot read in the minds of my 14 IOC executive board colleagues, however from discussions I noted that the executive board felt that the governance of the wrestling federation at that time, I insist at the time, was not optimum,” Rogge said Sunday.

It made major changes the last seven months amid the backdrop of widely publicized “Save Olympic Wrestling” and “Keep Olympic Wrestling” campaigns. Swiss Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president in February, replaced by the burly, bespectacled, chain-smoking Lalovic.

“We have made mistakes,” Lalovic said. “We admitted it, but we decided to listen and learn. We are aware of our mistakes, and they will not happen again.”

It replaced two men’s weight classes (one each in freestyle and Greco-Roman) with two women’s weight classes (freestyle, as there are no Greco-Roman women’s Olympic classes). It also simplified its rules and scoring, making it easier to understand and awarding more aggressive strategy.

“Wrestling is new, in virtually every way,” former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said as part of wrestling’s presentation. “EB’s (the IOC executive board) decision was a wake-up call for FILA.”

American wrestlers past and present reacted to the news with joy. Burroughs, the only 2012 U.S. Olympic wrestling champion, watched the stream of the announcement on his phone, according to The Associated Press.

1972 Olympic champion Dan Gable saw it at a watch party at the University of Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“Had we not been kicked out seven months ago, we would have been seven months deeper in a hole that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to dig out of,” Gable told the AP. “For me it was like, if we would have lost (Sunday), it would have been two losses in seven months. And all of a sudden it becomes a pattern, and a pattern of losses becomes a disaster.”

Tuesday’s vote: new IOC president

There have been reported scenarios that baseball-softball or squash could still get into the 2020 Olympics, by changing the Olympic Charter, the maximum number of sports (28) and cutting events within current Olympic sports to get under the maximum number of athletes (10,500).

Baseball-softball was the first of the three sports to present Sunday. The two sports were dropped from the Olympics in a 2005 vote, with it taking effect starting with the 2012 Olympic Games. Baseball had been an Olympic sport since 1992; softball since 1996. They came together for a joint bid, hoping it would better their chances.

Baseball-softball’s highlight included a video that softball leader Don Porter pledged included full support of all professional leagues around the world. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig appeared in the video but made no mention of MLB players committing to playing in the Olympics. That has been an issue the last few months.

“Major League Baseball fully supports the (World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC)) bid to return to the Games,” Selig said in the video. “Baseball and softball belong together. … We want to return to the Olympic Games.”

Baseball-softball played four videos in all, accompanied by music from the likes of Nicki Minaj and Christina Aguilera. WBSC co-president Porter welled up talking about the oft-reported story of the hundreds of letters on his desk, 511 he said, from girls who are aspiring softball players.

“(The girls) were heartbroken by the news that softball would no longer be in the Olympics,” Porter said. “I keep those letters there because they touch my heart and constantly remind me of our mission and vision.”

Minutes after losing, baseball-softball canceled a press conference it had scheduled for after the vote.

“Hopefully, baseball’s successful in the future,” Rogge said at the end of the vote announcement, singling out baseball after thanking all of the sports.

Squash was the second sport to make its presentation.

“Squash is a sport that represents the future, not the past,” World Squash Federation president N. Ramachandran of India said in his opening remarks, noting its third straight bid to get into the Olympics for the first time. “Today is the culmination of a 10-year campaign.”

Ramachandran’s comments showed how squash was different from baseball-softball and wrestling, which have already been in the Olympics.

The presentation included a conversation between two young squash players, a 16-year-old boy from Peru and a 17-year-old girl from the Bronx. In its videos, squash included a logo that read, “sport at its best.”

Squash boasted its ability for a court to be constructed anywhere — it showcased the sport played near the Egyptian pyramids in a video — and its low number of total athletes, 64, also a plus for the Olympics. But how much it improved upon its previous failed attempts to get into the Olympics was questionable, and it was not considered to have much of a chance of winning Sunday.

Earlier in the program Sunday, Canada’s Dick Pound, an IOC member since 1978, suggested the sport vote be pushed back five months.

“My sense is there’s a very strong feeling wrestling” will remain in the Games, Pound said.

He wanted a revised list of core sports and new sports to be voted on next year. His suggestion brought to mind the fact that by keeping wrestling, the Olympic program is back where it was before the February recommendation to drop wrestling.

Rogge shot down Pound.

“We should act now,” he said.

Video: Tokyo named host of 2020 Olympics

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.