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.”
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.