Bloomberg: Wrestling’s Olympic Ouster Binds Russia, U.S. and Iran

Wrestlers say their sport is one of the world’s oldest. Olympic officials who last week voted to drop it from the games are finding that it’s got some of the most vocal and passionate supporters too.

That ardor has brought together officials from nations not typically known for close ties as Russia, Iran and the U.S. try to overturn wrestling’s ouster from the 2020 Summer Games. They say the move flouts Olympic tradition and the interests of hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, the governing body known as FILA, ousted its president Feb. 16, four days after the International Olympic Committee recommended taking wrestling off the list of core sports. The decision isn’t final and Iran and the U.S., which don’t have normalized relations, will work with Russia and other wrestling powerhouses to lobby the IOC’s executive board at its May 29-31 meeting in St. Petersburg.

“This is the world of sport,” Mikhail Mamiashvili, Russia’s representative to FILA said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “We are seeking to maintain a tradition that has nothing to do with political differences or ambitions.”

Wrestling, which has been on the modern Olympic program since 1896 and was part of the ancient games in Greece, wasn’t among the list of 25 core sports agreed on for the 2020 games, the IOC said Feb. 12. Instead, it will vie for a place with karate, roller sports, climbing, squash, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art of wushu, as well as baseball and softball, which are seeking inclusion under a single sports banner.

Russia won 11 wrestling medals at last year’s London games, with four golds. Japan also had four gold medalists and six total medals, while Iran had three golds among six won in the sport. Azerbaijan secured seven wrestling medals in London, including two golds, tying the number of winners for the U.S.

“The issue of dropping wrestling from the Olympic games is very serious,” Mohammad Aliabadi, the head of Iran’s National Committee of Olympic, said Feb. 14, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “We should stop this from happening with the help of many large countries.”

Iran won its first two gold medals in the Greco-Roman form of the sport in August at the London games, capturing weight classes dominated by Russians in 2008.

In a World Cup meet in Tehran, the U.S. yesterday finished with a 2-1 record, beating Georgia and Japan before losing to the Iranians in the fourth round. The hosts, who were 4-0 in the group stage will meet Russia, which was also undefeated, in today’s gold medal round, while the Americans had to wrestle Bulgaria this morning to decide the rest of the day’s schedule.

The Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC systematically reviews every sport following each Olympics. This month’s executive board vote came after a report by the Olympic body analyzing almost 40 criteria including television appeal, anti-corruption practices and popularity. The IOC will reconsider its recommendation in May, and all its members will vote in September to add a sport for the 2020 games.

Wrestling officials and athletes said their sport must remain because of its history.

“Mistakes are made and mistakes can always be corrected,” said Noel Thompson, founder and head of New York-based hedge fund Thompson Global Partners and an official with national governing body USA Wrestling. “The Olympics are about bringing people together. It’s about equality. It’s impossible to have an Olympics without wrestling.”

FILA said its president, Raphael Martinetti, quit last week at a meeting in Thailand after a vote of no confidence by member states that blamed him for failing to prevent the Olympic exclusion. Thompson said a poor relationship between Switzerland’s Martinetti and IOC President Jacques Rogge left wrestling without support when the committee voted to trim one of the 26 sports that featured in London.

Thompson, who competed at Hofstra University in New York and went on to work at Goldman Sachs Group Inc (G)., said the U.S. is working with Russia and other countries to ensure the presentation to the IOC is thorough and unified.

“We are listening to the IOC’s concerns,” Nenad Lalovic, FILA’s acting president, said in a Feb. 18 statement. “We must strive to improve our sport’s Olympic offering in order to retain our position on the Olympic program.”

Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a member of the IOC’s 15-person executive board and a vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, said members considered issues including popularity, broadcast coverage and history when voting to recommend wrestling’s removal.

Pentathlon, a sport created by the founder of the modern Olympics that combines fencing, swimming, horse riding, running and shooting, was among the sports considered for removal.

Samaranch, whose father was IOC president, said wrestling isn’t unique in bringing nations in conflict — such as Iran, the U.S., Cuba and former Soviet states — together.

“With all Olympic sports there are different cultures and religions playing together and sharing their experiences,” he said. “It’s not just one sport.”

China and the U.S. used “ping-pong diplomacy” to break down barriers between the countries in the 1970s. The nations used a table tennis tournament to set up a visit by U.S. President Richard Nixon and established relations for the first time in several decades.

Thompson said wrestlers have a special bond because of the commitment required to reach the top of a sport that doesn’t yield the big paychecks offered in basketball or soccer.

“This is sports diplomacy,” he said. “As athletes we always get a chance to talk to other wrestlers, from Cuba, Iran, Russia and other places. Capitalism, freedom and democracy are talked about. Normally you wouldn’t talk to Iranians, Russians but that dedication, that pain from the buildup of lactic acid, binds us together.”