In a surprise move that shocked the Olympic community, the International Olympic Committee voted Tuesday to drop wrestling for the 2020 Games.
The IOC’s 15-member executive board voted via several rounds of a secret ballot in Lausanne, Switzerland, to eliminate the sport that has roots in ancient Greece and has been part of every modern Olympic Games since 1896 in Athens.
“USA Wrestling is surprised and disappointed about today’s announcement concerning the International Olympic Committee Executive Board’s recommendation that wrestling not be a core sport included in the 2020 Olympic Games,” Executive Director Rich Bender of Colorado Spings-based USA Wrestling said in a statement. “Wrestling is one of the sports of the original Greek Olympic Games and in the first modern Olympic Games. It is one of the most diverse sports in the world, with nearly 200 nations from all continents participating in wrestling.
“It is an inclusive sport which provides opportunities worldwide, regardless of geography, race, gender or physical characteristics.”
No country has won more Olympic medals in wrestling than the United States, with U.S. athletes claiming 50 golds and 125 overall. In the 2012 Games in London, 344 athletes competed in 11 medal events in freestyle wrestling and seven in Greco-Roman, according to The Associated Press.
Rulon Gardner, who trained in Colorado Springs, pulled probably the biggest upset in Olympic wrestling history when he defeated undefeated Russia Alexander Karelin in the Greco-Roman super heavyweight final in the 2000 Sydney Games. Coronado High School graduate Henry Cejudo is the youngest American to capture a wrestling gold medal at 21 when he won at freestyle in Beijing in 2008.
The move also puzzled U.S. Olympic Committee officials.
“We knew that today would be a tough day for American athletes competing in whatever sport was identified by the IOC Executive Board,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement. “Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced. It is important to remember that today’s action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world.
“In the meantime, we will fully support USA Wrestling and its athletes.”
According to officials familiar with the vote, who spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity, wrestling, modern pentathlon, taekwondo and field hockey were the four sports up for elimination. Modern pentathlon — whose national governing body is also headquartered in Colorado Springs — survived the vote despite being considered the sport most vulnerable.
“We’re excited, but I feel bad for wrestling,” Modern Pentathlon Managing Director Rob Stull said. “I have a lot of good friends in wrestling and in the movement in general. It’s disappointing for anybody, and I’m sure they’d feel the same way if the shoe was on the other foot.
“I think wrestling has a chance of reversing its fortunes, and this may just be a cloud passing in front of the sun.”
The vote is only a recommendation that will be finalized at the IOC Executive Board’s September meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A commission report designed to evaluate each sport named 39 criteria — including television ratings, ticket sales, global participation and popularity — used to evaluate each sport that was at risk.
“This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling, it is what’s right with the 25 core sports.”
The last sports to be eliminated were baseball and softball, dropped for the 2008 Beijing Games, with golf and rugby being added for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC’s executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss which sport or sports to add for the 2020 Games.
Jim Scherr, former head of the USOC who finished fifth as a heavyweight wrestler in the 1988 Seoul Games, was also saddened by the IOC’s decision.
“It was surprising and shocking — not because we didn’t think wrestling was in the consideration like all sports were — but because of its popularity and international appeal and the fact that it is extremely inclusive worldwide,” said Scherr, who is serving as commissioner of the Colorado Springs-based National Collegiate Hockey Conference. “Obviously, there’s still some hope that wrestling can be re-included in the program through the process that culminates in September, but it’s a difficult and uphill challenge at this point.”
News of the decision sent a ripple of activity through the Internet, with more than 6,000 people commenting on the Yahoo Sports feature about the news. USA Wrestling has established a “Keep Wrestling in the Olympics” Facebook page to support what will be continued efforts to appeal to the IOC’s decision-makers, and it has already received more than 16,000 “likes.”
“We look forward to telling the story about wrestling to the International Committee leadership and the entire world about our great sport and why it should be part of the Olympic movement forever,” Bender said. “USA Wrestling pledges to be a leader in the international effort to ensure that wrestling remains on the Olympic program. As we continue our leadership in expanding wrestling within our nation, we also will place our full resources and energy behind supporting wrestling on the international level.”
Previously considered under the closest scrutiny was modern pentathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since the 1912 Stockholm Games. It was created by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, and combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting.
Klaus Schormann, president of governing body UIPM, lobbied hard to protect his sport's Olympic status and it paid off in the end.
"We have promised things and we have delivered," he said after Tuesday's decision. "That gives me a great feeling. It also gives me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up."
Modern pentathlon also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president who is a UIPM vice president and member of the IOC board.
"We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others," Samaranch told the AP. "We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives. Tradition is one of our strongest assets, but we are also a multi-sport discipline that produces very complete people."
The Associated Press contributed the pentathlon short