Wrestling wins battle to remain in Olympics

Wrestling receives enough votes to beat out baseball/softball and squash as provisional sport in 2020 and 2024

K.J. Pilcher
Published: September 8 2013 | 4:22 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 8:10 pm in
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Wrestling won its contest to continue its long and storied relationship with the Olympic Games.

The sport so intricately woven into the fabric of Iowa’s agriculture and blue-collar culture will be able to claim its place in its premier event.

Dozens gathered at the Feller Club Room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City to watch video of Sunday’s 125th Session of the International Olympic Committee from Buenos Aires, Argentina, determining wrestling fate in upcoming Olympic Games. Slight cheers and hugs were produced when the IOC announced wrestling earned the 28th and final spot on the 2020 and 2024 Olympic programme.

Former University of Iowa coaching legend and Olympic champion Dan Gable shared a bear hug with Hawkeye assistant and former Olympic medalist Terry Brands. Wrestling received 49 of 95 votes during the first tally, getting just enough to avoid a second ballot. Baseball/softball had 24 and squash 22.

“It’s more than relief,” Gable said. “It’s something I probably had to have otherwise you’d probably be working on me right now. I’m pretty strong but I needed that.”

Gable has been working to promote the sport nationally and internationally since the IOC Executive Board suggested removing wrestling from the Olympics’ 25 core sports in February. The motion was upheld prior to the vote that followed presentations from a baseball/softball coalition and squash, competing for that last provisional status.

He anxiously awaited while the process unfolded and a burden was lifted from the Waterloo native, who has devoted so much of his life to wrestling. The sport has been a major vehicle of his impact on many aspiring athletes in Iowa and worldwide.

“It’s going to be easier to move forward,” Gable said. “It’s always easier to work on success than defeat, however, every once in a while you have a defeat and we felt like that defeat was in February when they threw us out.”

The wrestling community rallied immediately seven months ago, gaining support from many politicians, including Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Dave Loebsack.

The announcement could have a major impact on the local economy. The 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials were held at CHA. The event set attendance records and generated a projected $5.6 million economic impact for Johnson County, according to a study by the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Without inclusion, the chance to host another Olympic Trials wouldn’t exist.

“Iowa City is arguably the mecca of this country,” said Cornell College Coach Mike Duroe, who is an USA Wrestling Committee Board Member and was part of the group that secured the Olympic Trials. “We need to generate interest for the Olympic Trials in 2016.”

A panel of five international wrestling leaders, consisting of three men and two women gave about a 30-minute presentation, answering questions and concerns from IOC members. They eliminated any sense of entitlement that could belong to a sport that dates back more than 3,000 years to the Ancient Olympics. Instead, they shared a message of diversity, evolution, tradition and the sport’s intangible benefits with humility.

“When you have the right people that have integrity get together you can see what wrestling people can do,” said Brands, noting the energy, power and punch, especially the commanding delivery by American Jim Scherr, wrestling’s presentation delivered. “Awesome work by those guys."

Wrestling has transformed drastically since the earlier recommendation. It changed leadership, forcing Raphael Martinetti out as President of International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) and replacing him with Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who led Sunday’s presentation.

They have also changed the scoring system and competition structure. FILA has improved gender equity concerns by increasing female leadership and participation. The IOC recently approved adding two women’s weight classes for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“I want to offer my sincere gratitude to each member of the International Olympic Committee that voted to save Olympic wrestling today,” Lalovic said after the vote. “With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference. I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic Movement that we can be.”

Iowa Coach Tom Brands was in Belarus, coaching Team USA before the World Championships.  Word spread fast. Wrestling is stronger than it was when this started.

“We’re a better sport now than we were in February and I think the IOC recognized that with today’s decision,” Tom Brands said. “I’m glad the vote turned out the way it did, and I credit our new governing body and the people who fought for inclusion for getting the job done. The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of our sport. I believe that, and the response from around the world confirmed it.”

In the address to the IOC, Scherr said wrestling’s efforts have dealt with leadership, the presentation of the sport, marketing, which includes campaigns to generate interest and following via social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and participation.

Work still remains as wrestling strives to return to core-sport status. The future might look back on this ordeal and consider it a defining moment.

“Our President said it; we’re going to get better every day. We’re going to continue to find the solution,” Terry Brands said. “It truly is the world’s oldest and greatest sport. You just can’t argue the lessons that it teaches. I’ll even argue that with (Iowa men’s basketball coach) Fran McCaffery.

“The IOC wanted to get our attention as a wrestling organization and they did.”

They also grasped the attention of aspiring Olympians, who were clinging on to hope wrestling would be reinstated. Iowa’s rich tradition has produced its share of Olympians and medalists, including 1996 champion and Iowa head coach Tom Brands and University of Northern Iowa head coach Doug Schwab, who wrestled in the 2008 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

“We have athletes in Eastern Iowa who have dreams to be an Olympic Champion,” Duroe said. “That dream is still alive.”

Wrestling’s survival teetered on the outcome. Former Hawkeyes Phil Keddy and Matt McDonough have turned to international careers, and expected positive news. The decision affects those following in their footsteps.

“I know it’s still not a core sport, but there’s a future now,” Keddy said. “It’s what little kids growing up are looking forward to now. They know it’s in the 2020 games, which is the next step.”

Terry Brands and McDonough both likened the time leading up to the announcement to moments before, during and after a match. The physical, mental and emotional strain was alleviated a short time after presentations.

“You’re sitting there watching and waiting to hear the decision and there are butterflies in my stomach like I’m competing again,” McDonough said. “It’s good to hear the decision was made to keep it.”

Iowa freshman Sam Brooks recently competed in the Junior World Championships. His Olympic goal remains intact.

“It’s a relief,” Brooks said. “It’s peace of mind that I know what I’m training for will still be there in 2020 and after that.”

Saturday, the IOC named Tokyo, Japan, as the host of the 2020 Olympic Games. The IOC will also vote on a new President  on Tuesday, replacing Jacques Rogge, who is stepping down after a 12-year term.

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