BY BRYCE MILLER AND ANDY HAMILTON — Des Moines Register
Moments after wrestling supporters wiped sweat about their Olympic future from collective brows Wednesday, concerns heightened anew about facing two other finalists for the sole remaining spot in the 2020 and 2024 Games.
The International Olympic Committee’s executive council trimmed a list of eight sports groups to three — wrestling, baseball-softball and squash — during a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, that produced a shortlist for inclusion in those two Summer Olympics.
Minds and public-relations campaigns immediately shifted forward: How does wrestling, a sport that dates back to the ancient Olympics in 708 B.C., compare with relative upstarts like baseball-softball and squash? Opinions on Wednesday varied as much as votes likely will when the issue is decided Sept. 8 during the IOC’s general assembly meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Wrestling was blindsided in February, when the same IOC executive committee voted it off the list of core sports — leaving it to fight for a return to the Games after the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve foreseen that,” said Kevin Klipstein, chief executive officer of U.S. squash. “… When wrestling was voted out in February, it certainly changed the dynamic of the campaign. We felt they became a pretty heavy favorite.”
The three sports groups advanced after proposals to the IOC group, eliminating karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wake boarding, and the Chinese martial art of wushu from consideration. Wrestling received the most first-round votes — eight of 14, according to wrestling officials — with baseball-softball and squash qualifying in subsequent rounds.
That support seemed to signal that the executive committee, which initially threatened wrestling’s Olympic future with its February vote, had responded to the sport’s new leadership, rules changes and gender equity initiatives.
Those closest to wrestling, however, remain concerned all the same.
“Now’s the time we get nervous,” said Jordan Burroughs, a gold medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 2012 Olympics in London. “We didn’t think there was much of a doubt that wrestling would be in the top three (Wednesday).
“But now, it’s the point where things get more serious and you never know.”
Rulon Gardner, a Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist in 2000, said nothing is a given when it comes to the world’s biggest sports stage.
“I thought it was about 50-50,” Gardner said of Wednesday’s vote. “This was the board that basically gave us the death penalty, so to speak. So the same people that voted us out had to vote us back in. Now we go to the big group (full IOC membership).
“I’d say 60 we’re in, 40 we’re out now. But we’re building so much momentum.”
THE CASE FOR, AGAINST WRESTLING
The prospects for wrestling at the September vote remain mixed, despite the Wednesday recommendation.
Proponents feel the sport has made significant change in a short amount of time — bringing in a new leader of the governing body FILA, simplifying a tangled and complex set of rules, and increasing opportunities for women — and owns one of the longest and richest Olympic histories.
Others feel the IOC is unlikely to vote off a sport in an effort to freshen up the program as it did in February, simply to add it back months later.
“Our sport answered the bell today,” said Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling. “It’s nice to get a victory, but it’s obviously not the prize.
“In my opinion, wrestling is a better sport today than it was on Feb. 12.”
In addition to the changes, wrestling builds its case for worthiness around a history that includes participation in the first modern Olympics (1896) and every other Olympics but one (1900) since.
FILA, the international governing body for the sport, estimated that as many as 50 million compete in the sport around the world. There are 177 countries with formal federations for the sport, with more countries participating in the sport.
Earlier this month, wrestling supporters illustrated the reach and potentially unique consensus-building potential of the sport when the U.S., Iran and Russia competed against each other during an event in New York City.
“I think about guys I didn’t like when I wrestled, now we’re holding hands and hugging each other to show unity on this,” Gardner said.
Advancing to the September vote allows wrestling to catch up with other finalists, in terms of bid proposal presentation.
Wrestling had just three months to organize itself for St. Petersburg, while others already on the list of contenders have been preparing for two years.
“We were the strongest competitor here and I believe we’ll be the strongest competitor in Argentina,” FILA president Nenad Lalovich said. “Three months ago, we were in a very bad position because they had two more years to get ready.
“Now we’re in the same position.”
THE CASES FOR, AGAINST OTHER FINALISTS
Some wonder if squash owns an advantage heading into the Argentina vote since wrestling initially was voted off in an attempt to initiate change to the core program, and baseball-softball faces the prospect of Major League Baseball players being unavailable because of the timing of its season.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig seemed to shoot down the possibility of top stars being in position to play, however, when he told the Associated Press Sports Editors group in April: “We can’t stop our season in August. Do I wish I could? Yes. But is it practical? No.”
Klipstein of U.S. Squash said 185 countries participate in squash, which also has worked to improve its marketability and reach.
Squash resembles racquetball, but uses a smaller racquet and ball. The sport has worked to mesh more effectively with television and the exposure that comes with it by implementing HDTV, super-slow-motion technology and additional cameras to capture a ball traveling at speeds that can reach 175 mph.
“One of the weaknesses we’ve had is we needed to be more marketable and have a better television product,” said Klipstein, who indicated the sport has crowned world champions from five different continents.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in that area.”
The baseball-softball bid, however, became the biggest surprise among the three that advanced.
The sport of karate had been whispered as a leading contender to join wrestling and squash. Selig’s comments about top MLB stars — which represent countries other than the U.S. — also seemed to diminish hopes.
“I know it’s a big handicap for baseball-softball, this declaration and decision about the professional player,” said Lalovich, the FILA president. “That hurts them for sure, but what can I say. We were also hurt three months ago.
“The problem with baseball-softball, maybe, is that it’s not practiced in a lot of countries. Wrestling is different, though. It’s in every corner of the world.”
Do the concerns with baseball mean it’s a two-sport battle for 2020 and ’24 between squash and wrestling?
“Certainly, we’re pretty singular in our focus,” said Bender, the USA Wrestling boss. “We’ll do everything in our power to put our sport in the best possible light. Some thought the baseball-softball bid was somewhat in trouble because of those comments (from Selig), but they’re on to the next level.
“So we can’t approach it as a two-horse race.”
WRESTLING WAITS TO LEARN ITS FATE
Terry Steiner, a former NCAA champion at Iowa who is the U.S. women’s wrestling team coach, said the vote in Russia gives his sport a dose of restrained confidence.
“I think wrestling has a very, very strong case because of our worldwide participation and the different countries winning medals,” Steiner said. “We’re definitely in the lead, I’m cautious to say that, but I think we are.
“Then again, nobody knew it would be removed in the first place.”
Steiner said the stakes remain incredibly high for his sport.
“It could be very damaging,” Steiner said when asked of the possible impact if wrestling failed to earn the September bid. “Who knows how it would affect the sport in this country, but it would affect it. It would give naysayers more of a reason to try to get rid of it in places where it’s hanging on. The Olympics legitimizes a sport.
“Would wrestling return to the Olympics even if it’s not in 2020? Yes, I think so. It’s too much of what the Olympics are. But in places like Central and South America, Western Europe, parts of Asia, African countries, they wouldn’t survive it without the Olympic endorsement.
“This is definitely good news, but we can’t let our guard down.”