Grappling to save Olympic wrestling

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I watched a video of the movie “Argo” as I flew into Tehran recently. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was willingly accompanying a group of Americans into a city that not so long ago was the scene of one of the greatest exfiltrations ever. I wondered if Ben Affleck would rescue me if things were to go poorly.

Honestly, I wasn’t really worried; I was traveling with the USA Wrestling team and we had been invited by the government of Iran to participate in the World Cup, a tournament where the top wrestling nations vie for international glory.

We’d been to Tehran before. But this year was different because it came in the wake of the surprise announcement that the International Olympic Committee has decided to drop our sport in the 2020 Games.

Wrestling was one of the original sports in the ancient Olympics in Greece, back when the Games were part of mankind’s transition to civilized society. The Olympics took the skills of war and survival and turned them into non-fatal contests with rules and rewards. Fighting, running, jumping and throwing became wrestling, boxing and track and field. Wrestling has been a core sport since the introduction of the modern Olympics in 1896.

The Olympic Games and other international sporting events still stand as a counterpoint to war. Take this wrestling trip to Iran: Our athletes, wearing uniforms emblazoned with “USA,” were welcomed cordially everywhere. We walked the streets of Tehran not as people from the “Great Satan” but as comrades in the union of athletes. Our men and women competed against historic foes such as Russia and Cuba, yet each match ended with a handshake — and perhaps a silent hope that future clashes will remain on wrestling mats rather than battlefields.

Athletes from more than 170 countries compete with dreams of Olympic wrestling gold. Our sport has no World Series, no Stanley Cup and no Super Bowl; for a male or female wrestler, the pinnacle is the Olympics. To be out of the Olympics is unthinkable.

So how did this happen? There had been rumblings from the IOC for months that wrestling could be on the chopping block, rumblings we foolishly ignored.

The IOC was in the process of cutting the number of core sports and had hired a consulting firm to create 39 metrics that would demonstrate the comparative popularity of events. Although the analysis was secret, excerpts found their way into the hands of the Associated Press, which reported that wrestling had fallen short in ticket sales, television revenue and media coverage. The IOC had pushed for more female categories to make the sport more fan friendly, and it asked for more transparent judging rules to address the subjective nature of deciding a contest.

Wrestling’s international governing body, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, better known as FILA, balked. Rather than immediately moving to work with the IOC to modify our sport, we dug in.

Meanwhile, the IOC’s decision prompted an international outcry. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a committee to protest the decision and make a presentation at the May IOC meeting in Moscow. Quietly, but just as decisively, calls to action came from unlikely allies: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and novelist John Irving.

And slowly, the sport started scrutinizing itself more closely. Swiss businessman Raphael Martinetti had run FILA for more than a decade. An autocratic leader, Martinetti ran the group with an iron fist. After the IOC vote, many of the organization’s members began to question his leadership.

A no-confidence vote was called at the FILA meeting in Thailand on Feb. 15, and Martinetti lost, 11 to 10. He then resigned.

But while there may have been issues with Martinetti’s leadership, wrestling’s fall from grace at the Olympics was about more than one guy. We share collective guilt for not spending more time courting the IOC and trying to address its concerns.

Our new unified group is now focused on the May IOC meeting in Moscow, where we’re hoping the decision will be overturned.

Wrestlers spend hours on the mat practicing slap-backs and takedowns. Over the next three months, we’ll be learning a new move: lobbying. And we are prepared to discuss and adopt changes. Olympic wrestling is about history, not ego.

Our sport is a great unifier. It is building bridges with the Cubans who will live in a post-Castro Cuba and with ordinary Iranians more interested in sport than nuclear negotiations. The move to get us back in the Olympics has created common ground for Putin and President Obama.

And if we get reinstated? Now that would make a great movie.

Noel Thompson, CEO of the hedge fund Thompson Global LP, was a two-time captain of the wrestling team at Hofstra University in New York. He serves as national team leader for United States Wrestling and is a governor of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

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