"Olympism is born together with wrestling" says new FILA President as fight to save sport starts
Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Certain days will always reverberate through history and for Nenad Lalovic he will forever remember where he was when he received news of the day that wrestling was dropped from the core programme of Olympic sports, a decision which, in the short-term at least, has dramatically changed the direction of his life.
"I can remember all of it," the Serbian recounts to insidethegames. "The 12th of February. I was in my office in Belgrade. I was working my affairs and was not looking at the internet or anything. Then one friend from Switzerland sent me an SMS, 'Did you see what happened?' Then the whole world went down for me."
The shock was soon replaced by a sense of disbelief. Even now Lalovic does not understand how it came to this, a sport which has appeared in every Olympic Games, except one, since the founding of the Modern Games in 1896, one which can trace its heritage back to the Ancient Olympics in 708BC, when it was highly valued by the Greeks as a form of military exercise without weapons, being removed.
Lalovic, a member of the ruling Bureau at the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) since 2006, had no inkling that his sport's place in the Olympics after Rio 2016 was even under threat.
"We spoke many times with the Bureau and with the President and never did anyone say to us that there might be some problem," he says. "For us, it was really a surprise. FILA had filled out a questionnaire, which all the federations had to fuflil. We were informed everything was alright and we were informed that there would be a great fight between taekwondo and modern pentathlon. But nobody was speaking loudly about the wrestling and wrestling problems."
If they were not then, then they are speaking about them now. Loudly. Very, very loudly. From the White House in the United States to the Kremlin in Moscow to the Majles in Tehran, the world has condemned the decision by the ruling Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and come together under a single banner, setting aside deep-rooted political differences, to save wrestling. Petitions have been launched, Facebook groups set-up, letters written, protest groups formed, even gold medals returned to the IOC, as wrestling tries to save itself. It has been an impressive response from the wrestling community.
Lalovic is now the man tasked with harnessing all this emotion and momentum to try to save the sport's future, hoping against hope that it is not too little too late. Within less than a week of the IOC announcing their decision, Raphaël Martinetti had been dumped as FILA's President, having served in the role since 2002. In truth, his position was untenable the moment that the Russians started calling for him to be replaced.
In the end he could have saved himself with his casting vote at the FILA Bureau meeting but decided instead to walk away, leaving Lalovic to be put forward as his replacement, initially on an interim basis.
"My colleagues on the Bureau decided that I was the person good enough for this position during this crisis," Lalovic tells insidethegames. "We will see later. Maybe somebody will be better. I wish for my Federation that every President will be better than the last one. Everything depends, of course, on what will be the final decision of the IOC."
Lalovic has no background as a competitor in wrestling, He became involved in the sport in late 2000 after Slobodan Milošević was forced to step down as Serbia's controversial leader and ended the country's international isolation. Lalovic was invited to become the Serbian Wrestling Federation President, which had few resources and even less money, and was able to help them financially thanks to a successful business career in construction and car dealerships.
"I was a successful President," he says. "I was guided by [former FILA President] Milan Ercegan, who ruled FILA for more than 30 years. I took advantage of the great experience he was ready to give me. I was learning fast because I had a very good teacher."
Lalovic will need to remember everything he has learnt if there is there to be a sequel to Ercegan's book, 100 Years of Olympic Wrestling, written in 1997. It was a whirlwind week for Lalovic after his election at the FILA Bureau meeting in Phuket, a popular beach resort in Thailand, but where delegates were confined to the conference room to discuss the situation they had found themselves in.
He travelled back from there for a brief stopover at home in Belgrade before flying to Moscow, where he held talks with the Russian Wrestling Federation and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) ("I went from 37 degrees to minus 15," he says). The Russians - or the Soviet Union - have topped the Olympic medals at every Games since Munich 1972, except Los Angles in 1984, which they boycotted. At London 2012 Russia won a total of 11 medals, including four golds. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he will do everything he can to reverse the IOC's decision.
Putin is the apex of an unlikely alliance of politicans, which also includes former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - a former top-level wrestler - and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who shook hands with the US freestyle wrestling team when they visited Tehran earlier this month for a World Cup event, even though the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution after the American Embassy was stormed, leading to 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.
"I'm optimistic and I'm confident because I have a great team behind me," says Lalovic. "We are very united. The message that has been sent to the world has been fantastic. This is also a message to politicians about what sport can do, even in such a bad situation for our sport."
It could yet prove significant that the presentation where FILA must try to convince the IOC Executive Board that they should not be dropped from the Games after Rio 2016 will take place in St Petersburg, Putin's backyard. Wrestling will make a presentation, along with baseball/softball, climbing, roller sports, karate, squash, wakeboarding and wushu, the seven sports bidding to replace them on the programme.
It is expected that afterwards the Executive Board will put forward three sports for the full IOC Session to vote on at its Session in Buenos Aires. The ROC is also already beginning to apply political pressure and it is likely that Putin will be contacting several IOC members he is close to to try to persuade them to help him. The growing belief is that if wrestling can get itself into this group of three then its chances of being kept on the programme will increase dramatically.
Lalovic, however, understands that he still has to put in some hardwork to put up a powerful argument as to why wrestling should remain in the Olympics. "We're fixing a plan of action," he says. "All our members are activated to meet people and explain our problems. The most important thing is that everyone has to see that we are willing to stay in the Olympic Family by solving some problems that we have in our house."
Public relations firms are expected to be employed in the next few weeks to try to give FILA support but Lalovic does not want a slick marketing campaign, preferring instead to rely on the passion already demonstrated by the wrestling community. "They [PR firms] will, for sure, help us but this presentation must be done by FILA," he says.
"Of course, we will be helped by agencies but I think our people have to explain on that session of the Executive Board in St Petersburg. This is a serious matter and the future of our sport depends on it and we have to send a message we can do it ourselves.
"I believe that the main problem is that the rules mean our sport is not watchable enough and interesting enough for the persons who come the first time, who have never looked at some wrestling competitions before. They need a lot of time to understand the rules, which are very difficult.
"This is our fault - we had to make those rules more understandable and make wrestling more attractive. But they cannot be solved overnight. We need at least six months to a year to implement new rules. A group of coaches, referees, Olympic champions are working on it."
Lalovic has made better governance at FILA another high priority. "We also have to solve some problems as one of the remarks [at the IOC Executive Board] we believe was that sportsmen, our athletes, are not involved enough in the decision making of the federation," he admits. "That we have solved now by creating a new Athletes' Commission."
Russia's Aleksandr Karelin, arguably the greatest wrestler of modern times with three consecutive Olympic gold medals between 1988 and 1996, has been appointed as its chairman and co-opted onto the FILA Bureau. Japan's Saori Yoshida, another triple Olympic gold medallist having won at Athens in 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, is also being lined-up for a major role.
There are plans generally for women to be involved more at the top in FILA. "Every continental conference has a woman involved and there are two women on the Bureau," says Lalovic. "But it's still the minimum - we want more women to participate in the decision making."
Karelin will be among a group of experts analysing what changes wrestling can make to help make it more attractive, particularly to television. "In the past times we were always informed that we could not change a lot of rules because it is going out of the competition programme that the IOC would accept," says Lalovic.
"But I don't think that is the real problem. If we explain correctly and seriously what will be the most interesting wrestling for watching I think everybody will support our decision. Personally, I would like the bouts to be a little bit longer. I would like personally the competition to be held in two days because it's very difficult to have five, six or seven matches in one day."
"But, you have to understand, that I am not the specialist but this is the way we are going. We are all thinking in this direction."
Lalovic is planning to base himself - for the next few months at least - in FILA's offices in Corsier-sur-Vevey, the small Swiss village where Charlie Chaplin lived for 24 years until his death in 1977. The village's coat of arms is an Argent, a Heart Gules above two shaking hands. But Lalovic admits that FILA has grown too much of a stranger to the IOC, even though the two organisation's headquarters are less than half-an-hour apart.
"FILA was too far from the IOC in many points of view and this is maybe the result of what happened," he says. "We are still in the same Family but maybe we have been bad neighbours. But I strongly believe that we have a very short time to clean our yard and speak with our neighbours."
Lalovic is due to hold talks on March 7 with IOC President Jacques Rogge, which could prove crucial. "I will be received by the President and I will explain everything that we are doing and what we are ready to do," he says. "I expect from him also some recommendations in order to stay in the Olympic Family."
Just before he was replaced as the sport's leader in 2002 by Martinetti, Ercegan had launched the "FILA Golden Plan", a programme designed to provide technical assistance for developing countries. If the results at London 2012 are any guide, then Ercegan can be proud of the Plan's success. A total of 29 countries shared the 71 wrestling medals at those Olympics, comfortably making it one of the most global sports practiced at the Games.
"Olympism is born together with wrestling," says Lalovic. "I don't think the Olympics can continue so easily without wrestling. Probably we made a lot of mistakes, but we will cure them and I think the Olympic world will understand. I strongly believe we are part of the Family.
"We don't need a lot of equipment. If you go in any village in Africa or in South America, every group has his wrestling. Wrestling is practiced in every village in the world. The Olympic wrestling is compilation of all these styles.
"The main goal for each wrestler is the Olympics. Without the Olympics our sport is practically dead. It's not football. It's not basketball. They can survive from that, but not wrestling."
Duncan Mackay is the award winning editor of insidethegames. A former UK Sports Journalist of the Year and UK Sports Internet Writer of the Year, he previously worked for The Guardian and The Observer. London 2012 was the eleventh Olympics he has covered