Alan Hubbard: Where the UN failed, the IOC has succeeded by trying to throw wrestling out of the Olympics

Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Alan Hubbard head and shouldersTalk about Wrestlemania

The decision to throw out one of the original Olympic sports from the core programme of the Games has sparked off an unprecedented free-for-all which has also brought about the unlikeliest - and some might say  unholiest - of coalitions on a united battlefronts.

Can you believe it? We have Russia, the United States and Iran joining forces to declare war on the International Olympic Committee.

All are influential wresting nations mightily peeved that they are in danger of being jocked off the 2020 Games.

The Cold War may be long gone but who could visualise the Russian President Vladimr Putin, better known for throwing his weight around on the judo mat, making up a tag with the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who himself had an 11-year career as a wrestler, in an attempting to put the arm lock on Jacques Rogge?

Moreover they have Iran as an ally egging them on, supported by calls for the Indian and Turkish Prime Ministers to join this remarkable grip-and-grapple protest movement.

Iran, where the US team are currently competing, said this week it is looking to join wrestling's major powers to overturn the IOC decision. Iran won three wrestling medals at the London Olympics, the U.S. took four,  and Russia was top nation with 11,including four golds.

Whether this astonishing alliance can register three falls or a submission over the IOC now depends on  the outcome of the IOC  Executive Board meeting which takes place at SportAccord in St Petersburg from May 29 until 31.

There they will have to throw their hat into the ring with the seven other sports - baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, squash, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu - currently bidding for inclusion on the 2020 programme, in making presentations to the IOC.

Following this the Board will recommend three sports on which the membership can vote on in Buenos Aires in September.

Wrestling's prospects are not looking healthy but some big guns are being fired on its behalf.

Backed by their respective National Olympic Comittees Russia and the US are already hitting a few targets.

Putin has immediately flexed his renowned muscles by helping set up the new International Wrestling Committee to co-ordinate a campaign which has forced the resignation of Rafael Merttinetti, the long-time Swiss head of FILA (International Association of Wrestling Styles).

Donald Rumsfield on wrestling teamFormer US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a talented wrestler as a youngster who tried unsuccesfully to qualify for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne

And in the US 80-year-old Rumsfeld has written a strongly-worded open letter to the IOC published in the Washington Post. He declares: "Wrestling is unlike any other athletic activity...and to abandon this great Olympic legacy would be a tragedy for the sport and for the proud tradition of the Olympic Games. The IOC has been overcome by 'kumbaya' thinking and should restore wrestling to the 2020 line-up."

I'm not sure quite what he meanss by "kumbaya" though obviously it isn't complimentary.

But I'm equally sure Rumsfeld knows what he is talking about because he was a wrestling champion at Princeton University who tried unsuccessfully to make the US Olympic squad in 1956.

Rumsfeld noted that wrestling "once was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln's" and that he was not then only wrestling US President. Other grapplers who made it to the White House include George Washington (school champ at the Reg. James Maury's Academy in Fredricksburg, Virginia),  Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who "mastered a wicked move called the Flying Marc that savagely flipped an opponent to the ground."

Bill Clinton was also partial to an spot of White House wrestling (of the horizontal variety, so we're told) while George W Bush simply mangled his words.

Actually, Rumsfeld makes the sport sound more exciting than it is.

It is hard to argue that it is not the most boring sport in the Olympics, but this does not mean it should be booted out.

It is one of the very foundations of the Olympic movement, both ancient and modern, dating back to 704 BC.

Ironically it was part of the original pentathlon, the modern version of which was was favourite for the proposed chop when the Executive Board met in Lausanne recently.

However a fiercely-argued case by Juan Antonio Samaranch, a vice-president of the international federation, allied to media pressure, apparently helped save it.

In fact we hear that a piece I wrote for insidethegames suggesting it would be an insult to throw Baron de Coubertin's baby out with the bath water received wide circulation among IOC members and,  according to Martin Dawe, vice-chair of Modern Pentathlon GB caused  "a flurry of activity worldwide."

I also hear that the scandal around British Wrestling's policy of recruiting "Plastic Brits"- and they were lt alone internationally in playing fast and loose with passports of convenience this respect - did not help wrestling's cause.

Olga Butkevych at London 2012Did the negative publicity surrounding the recruitment of "Plastic Brits", like Olga Butkevych, for London 2012 contribute to wrestling being removed from the Olympics?

What might influence the IOC now is the fact that the sport has brought arch foes America and Iran in the common cause of salvation, with Russia on their side.

Something the United Nations can only dream of.

Knowing Rogge's passion for achieving such international unity, wrestling's cause may not be lost.

What is surprising, however, is that we've had barely a peep from the Greeks or the Romans. After all, they famously lent their names to one of the sport's two disciplines, though I doubt there are many outside the wrestling community who know the difference between Greco-Roman and freestyle.

I didn't until it was explained to me by my friend and fellow veteran Olympic scribe John Goodbody, of the Sunday Times, one of the few wrestling experts in this country.

It's simple. In Greco-Roman holds are barred below the waist.

But it is now no holds barred as the super-powers fight for wrestling to have an Olympic life after Rio 2016.

Alexander Karelin at Atlanta 1996Russian Aleksandr Karelin was one of the greatest wrestlers in history, winning three gold medals and a silver during his career

The sport has produced some renowned Olympic figures, among them the massive Russian Aleksandr Karelin, unbeaten as a Greco-Roman super-heavyweight from 1987-2000.

However I tend to agree with Goodbody that the uncertain future of sports like wrestling could be avoided if the IOC changed its Charter and moved some indoor contact sports (eg wrestling, boxing  judo, and taekwondo) to the Winter Games schedule.

Not only would this lighten an overloaded Summer Games programme but add televisual interest a Winter Games which are a turn-off for those nations who don't spend half their year skiing down mountains.

So, instead of giving wrestling a mat finish perhaps this is one idea the IOC could get to grips with.

And to liven things up maybe they could throw in some sumo.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and big fights from Atlanta to Zaire
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