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Yet on Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted by secret ballot to eliminate wrestling, starting in 2020. At the same meeting, it voted to keep the modern pentathlon.
You might have missed the modern pentathlon last summer in London, where only 26 countries participated in the combined shooting, horseback-riding, running, swimming and fencing event. In the same Olympics, there were wrestling medalists from 29 countries. In other words: more countries won medals in wrestling than competed in the modern pentathlon. Globally, the TV audience for wrestling averages 23 million viewers. The modern pentathlon averages 12.5 million.
An I.O.C. spokesman said of Tuesday’s vote, “It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling.” It’s a matter of what’s right with the other sports, he claimed. But what to think about the board member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. of Spain? The son of a former I.O.C. president, he is also a vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union. In the international wrestling community, talk of his conflict of interests is understandably widespread.
The I.O.C. decision isn’t the end. Wrestlers can appeal. There’s an executive board meeting in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a final vote in September. But why didn’t the sport of wrestling have sufficient representation before the secret vote in Lausanne?
He has also said, and I agree with him, that FILA probably presumed that wrestling’s status as an ancient Olympic sport would protect it. FILA said it was “greatly astonished” by the I.O.C. vote.
Michael Novogratz, a New Yorker and former Princeton wrestler — and chairman of the inner-city wrestling program Beat the Streets — has said that FILA “just did not do a great job of selling the merits of the sport.”
Since the vote in Lausanne, I’ve been asked many times: “How can anyone know what 15 members who vote by secret ballot really think?”
And while the United States has won the most Olympic medals in wrestling, Russia currently dominates the sport, and there have been many medal winners from Cuba, Finland, Iran, Turkey and South Korea — and, more recently, since the fall of the Soviet Union, from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan.
I’m kidding, of course. Seriously, FILA is doing an inadequate job of representing and protecting the sport I love, and thanks in part to its inadequacy, the executive board of the I.O.C. has been able to make a decision as underhanded and wrong as the corruption that brought an end to the ancient Olympic Games in A.D. 393. We need new leadership at FILA, and we need both more transparency and more responsibility from the International Olympic Committee.
John Irving is the author of 13 novels. A former wrestler and coach, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.
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