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How wrestlers were forced to leave the Olympics mat
The decision to oust wrestling from the Olympics smacks of an elitism and high-power lobbying that a basic sport of this nature could not counter. It also hightlights how sport comes at the bottom of the priorities in the corridors of the super-rich and supremely-powerful International Olympics Committee.
Wrestling finds mention in Homer's Illiad and Vyasa's Mahabharatha but it will soon be out of the modern Olympics if the decision of the 15 wise men, who form the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) high-power executive board, remains intact in the following months.
It is not the first time that the IOC is inviting criticism through its controversial actions but this latest move seems to take the cake as it defies logical thinking and confirms fears that not all decisions taken by the IOC are correct and there is politics in play. Millions of Indians will quickly relate to the latest IOC action especially as this one comes just months after suspending the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). What raised eyebrows then was the way the IOC, arguably the world's strongest and untouchable sportsbody after FIFA, handled the crisis in the IOA when it woke up only days before the IOA elections, that too after one faction in the IOA realized they are hopelessly out of support.
So then how did IOC manage to throw wrestling out of Olympics and that too brilliantly camouflaged it in the run-up to the meeting last week. All build-up stories were talking about modern pentathlon, taekwondo and badminton as the three sports at risk for the 2020 Games but after a vote the IOC told the world that wrestling and hockey (field hockey in IOC's parlance) were the two sports that topped the list of sports that faced the axe.
That both wrestling and hockey came out of nowhere is itself self explanatory that the other contenders for relegation managed to stay afloat using their clout in the IOC and it had nothing to do with universal appeal. Rather than complicating matters the IOC should have gone ahead using simple parameters of universal acceptance, affordability and entertainment value. Wrestling was also undone by the near total alienation in the board. Analysts point out that of the 14 nations represented in the board only Germany, Ukraine and Sweden have won medals in wrestling in the recent past.
So what saved modern pentathlon and taekwondo? Well, according to various commentators in the US who are aghast at the IOC sniping at another of their favourite sport after baseball and softball, it is the royal mentality of the Executive Board dominated by Europeans. They rightly pointed out that modern pentathlon found its saviour in Juan Samaranch Junior. The son of former IOC president is a former pentathlon player and now the vice president of the Modern Pentathlon Union and more importantly a member of the executive board that decided to retain the sport which is only modern in its name. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the Olympics, was forced to add the word modern to pentathlon to distinguish it from the original sport that comprised wrestling, foot race, long jump, javelin and discus throw. Coubertin modelled his new sport on the skills of a 19th century cavalry soldier with competition in pistol shooting, fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping (equestrian) and 3-km cross country. Interestingly, all these competitions are also separately contested at the Games. How Samaranch cast his vote when his own sport was on the chopping block is another question that begs an answer.
Now, take the case of taekwondo which survived. Earlier this month, Park Geun-hye, who is set to become the first female president of South Korea, urged IOC president Jacques Rogge to retain Korea's favourite sport. Though Rogge, expectedly, didn't commit any thing in Seoul, an official said the IOC chief told Park that he respected taekwondo's spirit. IOC's major sponsor Samsung, a Korean company, may also have influenced IOC's spirit.
But just the fact that for any kid wrestling is the cheapest option compared to taekwondo and modern pentathlon should have weighed in more than all the aristocratic, political and corporate lobbying for the elite-thinking IOC members. A total of 29 countries won wrestling medals and more than 70 nations competed in London compared to the six nations, including gold winners Czech Republic and Lithuania, who took the six medals in pentathlon.
What about the efforts of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) in trying to impress the IOC or were they too lethargic? According to top sports commentators the world body was caught napping when the IOC issued the diktat. President of the Russian Wrestling Federation Mikhail Mamiashvili has blamed it on the incompetence of the FILA and its president Swiss Raphael Martinetti. The Russian told reporters that his friends had alerted him long back that such a thing might happen and that he had promptly notified Martinetti.
"We would like to hear what had been done for the issue not to be debated by the Board, " he said in Moscow. And if you read this with the words of Rogge that Martinetti "has reacted well to this disheartening news", FILA will now have to do a lot to convince its critics. The long term effects of losing out on the Olympic identity for the no-cost sport, say unlike golf or roller sports, is going to be catastrophic. For the thousands of youngsters who took to the mat in different parts of the world, from Baprola to Ontario, dreaming of an Olympic gold, grappling will now be just for fun. To understand the impact of Olympic success one only has to look at MC Mary Kom. A majority of Indians never heard about the Manipuri boxer till the London Games though she had won the first of her five World Championship gold medals way back in 2002 in Antalya, Turkey.
If the TRP ratings of the 2012 Olympics are to be believed then wrestling has gone down in the chart compared to the previous Games including Barcelona and Atlanta which were sell-out events. Wrestling's main hope to get back on IOC's roster arises from the list of three candidate cities for the 2020 Games and that includes Istanbul. As wrestling is the national sport of Turkey, grappling will be right back in contention to win its place back. Even Tokyo may come to wrestling's rescue but Madrid may not as the Spaniards prefer baseball.
Experts who know the working of the IOC inside out are not convinced that wrestling will make a quick comeback. This may be symbolic but even the link to wrestling page on the official website of the Olympic movement has crashed and is now beaming a sorry message. But you never know. The IOC may see reason in the face of collective bargaining by USA, Russia, India and Iran and wrestling can be back on the podium beating the challenge of karate, wakeboarding, roller sports, baseball/softball, wushu, squash and sport climbing. It will be nothing but a bruising battle through repechage.
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