IOWA CITY — The International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games last February may be the best thing to ever happen to the sport.
“Absolutely,” a delighted and relieved Dan Gable said Sunday morning in Carver-Hawkeye Arena after watching the live-streaming Internet feed of the IOC’s vote to reinstate his sport for the 2020 Olympics. “I’ll be really disappointed if this isn’t a defining moment.”
On Feb. 12, the IOC voted to remove wrestling as one of its 25 core sports. It had to campaign to be one of three sports out of eight candidates to survive a May vote and be a finalist for Sunday’s ballot in Buenos Aires.
Wrestling practiced what it preaches. It battled, it overcame adversity. Sunday, it got 49 of the 95 votes, more than twice what squash or baseball/softball received.
“It was rising from the dead,” Gable said. “Basically, it looked like we were doomed and now we’re risen.”
The decision to drop wrestling had been widely viewed as a slap in the sport’s face. But it was a slap that woke it up, making its leaders understand it had to become more viable to the IOC. It also made wrestling and Olympic people alike realize how highly esteemed the sport is held.
“I’m traveling all over,” Gable said. “I’ll have a wrestling T-shirt or hat on. When I go up to a baggage-claim guy, he wants to see my number. He looks up and sees ‘Wrestling,’ and he goes ‘I don’t follow wrestling, are you a wrestler?’ I go ‘Yeah.’ He didn’t know who I was. He says ‘Boy, that’s a bad deal about you guys and the Olympics.’ ”
So it was for seven months. People far and wide with no emotional connections to wrestling expressed disgust about the IOC’s decision. Late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, who generally does an hour of sheer silliness five nights a week, took a moment on his CBS show to complain about wrestling getting the boot. He’s from Scotland and said he has no ties to the sport.
But it wasn’t public sniping that got wrestling back in the IOC’s good graces. The consummate individual sport forged a global team.
Stunned disbelief quickly gave way to leadership, action and change. Like good wrestlers, the sport’s higher-ups focused on hard work and offense.
FILA, wrestling’s global governing body, got a quick and needed overhaul. It was a coup, with president Raphael Martinetti resigning under pressure after he and his cronies had turned deaf ears at the IOC for too long.
International wrestling’s scoring rules were changed for the better. The huge crowds who attended the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City loved everything about the event except the scoring system, which didn’t sufficiently reward offense and too often put matches in the hands of officials.
Most importantly, the role of women in wrestling has been heightened.
“It’s a profound, revolutionary solution,” said Iowa wrestling associate head coach Terry Brands, an Olympic medalist who is heavily involved in international wrestling. “It’s something that has to be done. You can’t stop the momentum that women bring to the sport of wrestling. You can’t.”
At the 2016 Summer Games, there will be six weight-classes in men’s Greco-Roman, six in men’s freestyle, and six in women’s freestyle. In 2012, it was seven, seven, and four.
“One of our main guys said that was the tipping point (to winning the IOC’s favor),” Gable said. “We don’t want to lose men’s weight-classes and six weight-classes aren’t enough for a style. But you know what? If we get strong again, we might be able to add again.”
Now, wrestling looks like a 3,000-year-old sport that stood strong, that made itself more accessible while staying true to itself.
“I felt like this was the first time since I’ve ever been in wrestling where the wrestling world has stepped up,” Gable said.
Before the IOC voted, Brands said he had butterflies. Gable’s palms were sweaty.
When the vote ended, the result was familiar for both. They were winners.