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Reflections From Buenos Aires -- Welcoming Wrestling Back to the Olympics

Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus... all the Gods are smiling down from the heavens as a result of the IOC's decision to reinstate wrestling back into the Olympic Games.
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Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus... all the Gods are smiling down from the heavens as a result of the IOC's decision to reinstate wrestling back into the Olympic Games.

After nearly 7 months in exile (208 days to be exact), the oldest and greatest sport known to man has completed its triumphant return.

At the end of this long and arduous process we might want to look back and ask... "How the hell did we get here in the first place?"

Why would the IOC want to eliminate the oldest and greatest sports known to man? A sport with rich tradition and history. A sport that has athletes competing in hundreds of countries on every continent. A sport that is one of the last bastions of true amateur athleticism. A sport that thrives in underprivileged and poor communities around the globe. A sport that is not just part of the Olympic family but is the charter member... its founder.

Was it hubris, dysfunction, politics, neglect? The answer is... all of the above. I am certain that following the IOC executive board's decision last February to eliminate wrestling from the Games, the panic immediately began to set in. The full weight of that decision began to bear down on them as the tide of international outrage began to swell. Wrestlers protested, the public protested, governments protested, many of the voting members of the General Assembly of the IOC protested, athletes threatened to return medals, athletes went on hunger strikes. It was a level 10 PR disaster for the IOC. They were not prepared for the avalanche of criticism that was leveled against them, the passion of the public's reaction, and wrestling's international resolve to remain in the Games. I am sure if they could do it all over again they would not make the same mistake.

The blowback on the streets and the internet was powerful and poetic. I had somebody stop and say... "Hey, Mr. Baldwin... thanks for all you're doing for wrestling. I tell ya... it's crazy what the IOC did, huh? I mean c'mon Mr. Baldwin... the Olympics without wrestling? It's like the 4th of July without fireworks... no?"

Having said all that... not all of this mess is the IOC's fault. The truth is that most of the blame falls squarely at the feet of wrestling itself. More specifically FILA... the international governing body that represents wrestling to the IOC. This is where most of the hubris, dysfunction and neglect resided. Fortunately for wrestling and the IOC, the former president of FILA, Raphael Martinetti from Switzerland was swiftly ousted from office in a vote of no confidence within weeks of the IOC's decision and was replaced by Nenad Lalovic from Serbia. It is Lalovic's leadership, his vision, and his strategic partnerships with the international wrestling federations, the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling, and USA Wrestling that resulted in our successful campaign to have wrestling reinstated to the Games.

They mobilized and organized as they listened and learned. The result was sweeping reform for the sport both on and off the mat. The IOC was watching and they were impressed. They asked wrestling for years to modernize and wrestling said "thanks but... no thanks". As a result, wrestling found itself unceremoniously dumped... on the outside looking in for the first time in 3000 years. The actions of Lalovic and the international wrestling community were swift and dramatic.

They include:

  • Changes to the rules that create more scoring and reward aggression

  • Greater involvement for women both on the mat and in the administration of the sport
  • New concepts for the marketing, promoting and branding of the sport
  • Dynamic changes in the presentation of the sport on television
  • The integration of social media and new technologies to promote wrestling and unify the international wrestling community
  • The IOC wants the Games to "modernize". That's code for the age demographic of the Olympic television audience is getting older, the advertisers are not happy, and something has to be done about it so we all can continue to make lots of money. As a result we have Shaun White, the half pipe, the X Games, and Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh running around in bikinis for five hour in prime time. Before you attack... DON'T get me wrong here!! They are fabulous athletes who I respect and they have kicked ass for the United States in the Olympics. Both volleyball and snowboarding deserve to be in the Games. But... if you are looking to "modernize" the games in a way that will lower the age demo for advertisers then the X Games along with talented, beautiful woman diving around in the sand in bikinis will do the trick.

    Now it's wrestling's turn. These changes will make the sport more dynamic and exciting than ever to watch and easier to understand for the more casual Olympic television viewer. One of the reforms that I am most proud of is our sports commitment to gender equality. There are currently 30 million men wrestling around the world. Men have been wrestling in the Olympics for 3000 years. Conversely, there are roughly 200-300 thousand women wrestling and their participation has evolved impressively since the 1980's. Women first competed in the Olympics in the 2004 Athens Games. Wrestling has now adopted a 6-6-6 format for the Olympics... that being six men's freestyle weight classes, six men's Greco-Roman, and six female freestyle. In order to achieve this, men sacrificed two of their weight classes to create two new additional weight classes for women... paving the way for additional female participants. That establishes wrestling a leader at the forefront of the gender equality issue in all of sports.

    In the end, our victory down in Buenos Aires was a great one for sure. The greatest in our 3000 year Olympic history... but it was also bittersweet. Sure, we jumped from our seats, thrusted our fists in the air, and shouted with joy when the verdict was rendered. And make no mistake... the sport that most deserved to be in the Olympics won, but the process was flawed because the other sports in the competition never really stood a fighting chance. The IOC opened its "provisional sports" door to create a path that would allow wrestling back into the Games after they realized the colossal magnitude of their mistake. Provisional sports historically are ones that bring something new or fresh to the Games. Think lacrosse, triathlon or mountain biking. This is clearly not the case with wrestling. If I were the head of the baseball or squash delegation, I would file a grievance with the IOC immediately that states "baseball and squash by definition are both a better fit as a "provisional sport" that would bring something new and different to the Games... not wrestling. Why did you pit us against a sport that has competed in the Games for 3000 years? A sport that had an unprecedented level of international passion and support surrounding it in the wake of its unjust ouster? As a result of your mismanagement we never stood a chance."

    The process that allowed wrestling to be removed from the Olympic Program only to have it reinstated seven months later at the expense of the other provisional bidders was flawed. Thousands of manpower hours and millions of dollars were invested into these campaigns and it was never a fair fight. If the IOC executive board had handled this process properly and had reprimanded and reformed wrestling without removing them from the Games... who would be the provisional sport today? If wrestling has survived (which it deserved to) and modern pentathlon had gotten the boot (which it deserved to) then who would have won the vote for provisional sport on September 8th... baseball, squash, karate? Should they have to wait another four years to make another run at the Olympics... NO.

    I hope the IOC reopens the books on this one and gives these men and women another crack at it for 2020. They are both great sports and both worthy of being members of the Olympic family. In a world where race walking, ribbon twirling, curling, ping pong, prancing ponies, and rhythmic or synchronized anything exists in the Games... isn't there room for baseball?

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