McCombs: Wrestling's Olympic comeback a smart move

mmccombs@islandpacket.comSeptember 10, 2013 

When the International Olympic Committee decided in February to remove wrestling from the Olympic Games after 2016, it seemed crazy.

How could the Olympics exist without wrestling? After all, wrestling was the original Olympic sport. It existed in the ancient games and was the first medal sport in the 1896 games in Athens.

The desire of the IOC to restrict the number of sports meant that with the addition of new sports, like golf, some old ones had to go. Baseball and softball had already gotten the ax.

But wrestling? While the quintessential Olympic sport was marked to be cut down like a diseased tree, an antiquated sport like modern pentathlon was allowed to remain standing.

The decision created an uproar. So much so, that strange allies were born. In a rare occasion, the Olympic committees of Iran and the United States, both nations where wrestling is strong, found themselves on the same side of the proverbial fence.

Unlike baseball and softball, wrestling is a sport that is popular worldwide. In the 2012 games, 71 different nations had wrestlers qualify for the Olympics. And 29 different countries had medalists.

Just after the IOC's decision made ripples throughout the sports world, area high school wrestlers were preparing to advance to the state championships.

Bluffton coach John Hollman couldn't help but be troubled by the IOC's decision, telling me it was "insane" and an "injustice."

"Where's the logic," he asked me. "A lot of people are totally in an uproar. They're upset."

Hollman called wrestling the most basic of competitions, "the ultimate sport of survival." Two competitors, with all other outside factors being made equal, finding out which one is superior.

"It's an important sport, not only for what you gain physically, but mentally -- how to control your body, learning balance and discipline," Hollman said in February. "There's no obstacle you can't overcome once you've participated in this sport."

And that last line by Hollman illustrates just where this story turned.

When baseball and softball were bumped, they cried, rallied and even joined forces. But essentially, they didn't do anything any differently than they had before. They said, "we belong," but they never did anything to make the IOC believe it.

In baseball and softball's case for reinstatement, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made a pre-recorded plea for baseball. Yet Selig and MLB weren't even willing to address getting major leaguers into the Olympics or modifying the All-Star break once every four years to facilitate their participation.

But wrestling wasn't going to stay down. It was going to get off the mat.

The wrestling community took a hard look at itself. In cutting the sport, the IOC had chastised wrestling officials about dull matches, gender inequity and complicated rules. The powers-that-be in the sport's governing body, FILA, got busy.

In a seven-month time frame, FILA replaced its president. It evened the number of weight classes for men and women in freestyle wrestling and opened the door to women competing in Greco-Roman wrestling in the future. And it tweaked numerous rules in an effort to make matches more interesting and scoring more understandable.

And when the IOC met Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Sunday, it took notice.

The ballot wasn't close. Wrestling got 49 votes, compared with 24 for baseball and softball and 22 for squash.

When it seemed wrestling was down for the count, it managed to escape. It was taken down, but wouldn't be pinned.

Hollman was right about wrestling. It is the ultimate sport of survival.

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