Quietly, but with all due haste, America’s sizable wrestling community has marshaled its forces over the last three weeks, mounting an 11th hour effort to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to reinstate the sport to the program for the 2020 Summer Games.
Dan Gable, the legendary former coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes has added his considerable heft to the fight. Around the world, Gable is to wrestling what Michael Jordan is to basketball or Tiger Woods to golf. His Iowa teams won the NCAA wrestling championships an astonishing 15 times. And Gable was not only an Olympic gold medalist himself, he coached the U.S. team in 1980, 1984, and 2000.
"Can we get a passing grade and get back in there? I think we can do that," Gable said.
On February 12, wrestling was eliminated as a “core sport” by IOC officials, as they pared that list to 25. The more obscure competition, modern decathlon, took its slot, even though it is practiced in far fewer countries.
Supporters note that wrestling had been featured in the Olympics since 1896. Indeed, the sport was considered so synonymous with the Games that depictions have been found on Greek urns dating to ancient times.
"I think wrestling took some things for granted," Gable said. "We’re a core sport. We’ve been a core sport forever. We still should be."
If wrestling’s forces around the world (and there are many) are to make a case for re-inclusion, they have to do it quickly. The IOC will hold meetings in St. Petersburg in May, where wrestling’s backers hope to get on the short list of sports which will be recommended for inclusion in 2020. But it is anticipated that only one sport will end up being chosen. And wrestling is competing against legacy events like baseball and karate, as well as more obscure sports like wake boarding, skating, climbing, and the Chinese martial art Wushu.
"I think we just show them what we really are," Gable said, conceding that some rule changes in the sport in recent years may have reduced its global appeal as a spectator event. A case is being made right now to streamline those rules, and to show the IOC that the reach of the sport now extends into 180 countries.
"In America, it’s the fastest growing sport in high school," he said. "People know wrestling at the Olympic games. They put it together."
Ten days ago, FILA, the international wrestling federation, ousted its Switzerland-based president, with Russia openly accusing him of dropping the ball in keeping IOC members informed and happy about the sport. Russia won four of its 24 Olympic gold medals last year in wrestling, with 11 total medals in London.
"Basically, it happened because we let our guard down," Gable said. "The people on that committee didn’t realize how much danger we were in."
Last week in wrestling-happy Iran, the U.S. team received such a warm reception that the two nations said they would join forces in efforts to stop wrestling’s ouster. To illustrate the goodwill generated by the sport, Rich Bender, the head of U.S. wrestling, invited his Iranian counterparts to come to the U.S. in May to stage demonstration matches in New York’s Times Square.
Here in the U.S., wrestling’s supporters have created an ad hoc organization called C-POW, the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling. In just three weeks, they have raised over a million dollars.
Gable said. He concedes the campaign may be something of a herculean effort, but insists he remains optimistic.
"Optimistic, for one reason," he said. "We’re going to be better because of it. We’re going to be stronger. And if we don’t get it, we’re going to continue to go after it, and we’ll get back. Eventually!"
Feb. 12: Bill Scherr is a former wrestler who competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. He sat down with Phil Rogers to discuss the International Olympic Committee's vote to drop wrestling from the 2020 Games.