By tossing out wrestling, Olympics shames its own symbol

Wrestling does not deserve a place in the Olympics because without it India’s medal chances get bleaker.

It deserves a place in the Olympics because it is truly an Olympic sport.

That is why it has been part of the games from the very beginning. It did not have to get a “modern” avatar the way pentathlon did. It’s primal. It’s physical. It’s about real person-to-person contact. As a friend put it, it is about how humanity grapples with itself. “The art of living is more like that of wrestling than dancing,” Marcus Aurelius once said. “The main thing is to stand firm and be ready for unseen attack."

Japan's Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (in blue) fights with India's Sushil Kumar in the final of the Men's 66Kg Freestyle wrestling during the 2012 Olympic Games. Reuters

Japan's Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (in blue) fights with India's Sushil Kumar in the final of the Men's 66Kg Freestyle wrestling during the 2012 Olympic Games. Reuters

Who would have thought the “unseen attack” on the sport itself would come from the very body that’s charged with preserving the Olympic spirit?

Wrestling got booted out of the Olympics programme after four rounds of voting.

In the end, 8 members voted against wrestling. Three voted against field hockey. Three against the modern pentathlon. One of those board members was Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the imperious former IOC president and incidentally the current vice president of the international governing body of the modern pentathlon. “There’s a stench of something unsavory here,” writes Reid Redgrave on Fox Sports. “It feels like another politically motivated decision by the most political organization in sports.”

“It’s a black day for Indian as well as world wrestling,” said Mahabali Satpal, the coach of Indian wrestlers Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt.

Actually it’s a black day for the Olympic games. The Olympics symbol is of five interlocking rings. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin designed it he said those colours, along with the white background, reproduced the colours of the flags of all the nations that took part in the games at that time. “Here is truly an international symbol,” he said.

Wrestling, unlike wushu or the modern pentathlon, actually lives up to that symbol. It’s represented in 180 countries. In 2012, 29 countries won medals in 11 wrestling medal events. The medal roll call reads like the United Nations – Russian Federation, Japan, Iran, Azerbaijan, India, Armenia, Hungary, Cuba etc.

The modern pentathlon’s six medals went largely to Europe – Czech, Lithuania, Great Britain, Hungary. China and Brazil stood in for the rest of the world. Incidentally, nine of the board members of the IOC are from Europe, though none are from Russia.

The modern pentathlon might have been modern when it was invented a century ago. No longer. It still remains a sport that is all about the skills you need to be a 19th century European cavalry officer. You don’t hear about a child who dreams of being a modern pentathlete. But they do dream about becoming a wrestler and winning an Olympic gold.

“Lot of youngsters were taking up the sport, especially after our success at the London Games,” Sushil Kumar told the Times of India. “But now the blow will take the sport backward in India.” “We are targeting the 2016 Rio Olympics but there are other young wrestlers who are preparing for the next edition. What about them?” asked Yogeshwar Dutt, who won a bronze at London. There is no cavalry riding to their rescue.

The decision to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport is about a committee snubbing its nose at a sport that has drawn young people of less than privileged backgrounds, from small towns and villages, with little fancy equipment. “Buy a singlet and start rolling. Sure, there’s training involved, yet that’s true of any sport. Compare the costs and availability to yachting, which again somehow remains a core event,” writes Filip Bondy in the New York Daily News.

Depriving those young men (and women) from almost two hundred countries of a shot at the Olympic dream to save the not-so-modern pentathlon reeks of snobbery and opens the IOC to charges of racism. Talking about vote politics between Fila, the international wrestling federation and the IOC, a senior official at the Wrestling Federation of India added darkly, “Also Asians were winning medals in Olympics, especially in the lower weights.”

The Olympic Committee weighs all kinds of factors when it makes the difficult decision about what to axe and what to keep. That includes ticket sales, anti-doping policy and television ratings. “The IOC should seek sports that care about the Olympics, not just jamming popular TV sports into the Olympic system and pretending it’s the same thing,” writes Dan Wetzel on Yahoo. He is correct. Leave aside the modern pentathlon. Golf should never have made it into the 2016 Olympics in the first place. No golfer's, or for that matter tennis player’s, ultimate career dream is winning an Olympic gold.

In wrestling, an Olympic medal actually matters. That is the ultimate dream of some young man from some dusty village like Baprola. That’s his ticket to a Mountain Dew endorsement. That propels him to being the flag bearer for his nation at the Games.

But the elimination of wrestling hurts not just wrestlers but the spirit of the Games itself. When American Jordan Burroughs won the men’s 74 Kg wrestling gold in 2012, the man he defeated was Iran’s Sadegh Goudarzi. It was supposed to be the great America-Iran showdown on the mat. After his victory Burroughs tweeted out a picture of himself with Goudarzi with their arms around each other. “Who says Iran and America don’t get along? Maybe I should be president,” he joked.

Don’t hold your breath for that Olympic moment on the modern pentathlon medal podium.

“It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams soothingly. “It’s what’s right with the 25 core sports.”

He is right in a way. It is not a case of what is wrong with wrestling. It’s a case of what is terribly wrong with the International Olympic Committee.

There is petition to save wrestling as an Olympic sport you can sign here.

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