By David Owen in Olympia

David Owen head and shouldersIt is a fantasy moment for true believers in Olympic legacy.

Amid ancient columns, as the call of a million cicadas fills the air, young wrestlers go through their moves in red and blue one-piece outfits.

The venue – the palaistra at Olympia in Greece – is perhaps 2,300 years old.

It is all part of this ancient sport's rediscovery of its historical roots in a bid to salvage its place on the modern Olympic programme.

Amid an audience composed of what is quite possibly the biggest convergence of wrestlers ever assembled at this hallowed spot, Nenad Lalovic, a heavily-built Serbian – whose installation this year as President of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) is perhaps the most significant of the changes pushed through by a sport shocked by its loss of core Olympic status – has been made solemn by the weight of history.

"I feel more obligation," he says when asked how his visit to the cradle of the Olympic Movement has affected him.

"The burden is bigger on my back."

Milo of CrotonWrestling made a pilgrimage to the site where Milo of Croton used to practice the sport

Olympia, 200 miles south-west of Athens in the strikingly lush western Peloponnese, has been the venue this weekend – July 20 and 21 – for an international wrestling competition featuring athletes from as far afield as Brazil and the United States.

The finals were being held this evening at the Olympic Academy, perhaps 500 metres from where wrestler Milo of Croton, classical antiquity's most celebrated athlete, used to strut his stuff.

In a sports movement defined by its ancient heritage, the history card played at Olympia by a sport that has been on the Olympic programme since 708BC is an ace, trump and joker rolled into one.

I believe it will be a strong factor in persuading enough International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to vote for wrestling at their Session in Argentina on September 8 for the sport to make it onto the 2020 Summer Games programme, in preference to its two rivals, baseball-softball and squash.

All the same, let's not exaggerate the similarities between ancient wrestling and its 21st century equivalent.

The early phases of this weekend's competition on Saturday took place in a modern gymnasium that happened to be in Olympia, but, once inside, could have been anywhere from Mongolia to Merthyr Tydfil.

Olympic wrestling is up against baseball-softball and squash for a place on the 2020 Olympic sports programmeWrestling is grappling with baseball-softball and squash for a place on
the 2020 Olympic sports programme

It was hot, so the wrestlers worked up a good sweat.

I witnessed at least one injury – hardly surprising in a sport Lalovic thinks might well be the most technically and physically demanding of all.

But everything was scrupulously clean on and around the yellow red and blue wrestling mats.

And, of course, the athletes were suitably attired – and of both genders.

Compare this to the scorching heat and dust of the skamma – the sanded area, open to the elements, where ancient wrestlers – always male, always nude, or so I understand – used to spar.

"The ground was loosened up by the athletes themselves, using pickaxes," writes Nigel Spivey in his 2004 book, The Ancient Olympics.

"It was customary for anoint themselves with oil before entering the sandpit.

"This habit of lubrication served cosmetically to keep sunbeaten skin moist.

"But because it made wrestling holds almost impossible to effect, body powders were also applied...

"Athletes came away from the skamma routinely coated in a mixture of dust, oil, sweat, and probably blood too."

Competition categories at ancient Olympia were by age rather than weight.

Greek wrestlers promote their sport in ancient OlympiaGreek wrestlers promote their sport in ancient Olympia

And the raison d'être of wrestling – and other Olympic sports – was overtly militaristic, unlike today.

"The entire programme of athletic 'games' could be rationalised as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting," Spivey writes.

"The security and safe-keeping of a city devolved to its own citizen-body."

Ancient wrestlers, you might say, wrestled primarily to build up the strength, reflexes and durability that would help make them good soldiers; modern wrestlers hone these qualities in order to wrestle to the best of their capabilities.

As the military prerogative of ancient sport, by no means negligible when the Olympics were revived in 1896, has largely fallen away, entertainment value has become more and more important – even for the heritage-conscious Olympic Movement.

And while Olympic wrestling inspires the most fervent dedication among devotees, it has come to be perceived as a bit of a hard-sell for mainstream sports fans, the prime focus of whose captivation is often ball-sports.

Having said that, the pressure of possible ejection from the Olympic Games has prompted wrestling to unearth some impressive-seeming numbers for TV viewers and social media reach, including in zones seen as important to the Movement's further development, such as India.

There are of course forms of wrestling that have proved adept at captivating a mainstream audience in recent decades: Giant Haystacks and Mick McManus were the poster boys of one; Hulk Hogan of another.

When I ask Lalovic if FILA has anything to learn from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), he does not at first seem very impressed.

After a while, though, he does concede that "maybe some details from presentation and maybe visual effects" might be transferable.

"That's all that can be interesting for us."

The response is typical of the candour and open-mindedness with which the 55-year-old Serbian has attacked the task of pulling wrestling's Olympic future out of the fire in the five months since he took over as President, initially on an interim basis.

Nenad LalovicUnder Nenad Lalovic the ancient sport of wrestling is starting to head in the right direction

A flurry of changes is already in the process of being made – even though, here and there, wrestling already seems ahead of the curve: in how many sports, for example, would you see a woman refereeing a men's contest, as was the case in the fourth or fifth fight I witnessed in the Olympia gymnasium?

Lalovic equally gives every impression of being open to other good ideas, wherever they might come from.

"This is not the Bible we wrote," he told me yesterday in an interview.

"We are ready to change as often as needed to have, in a few years, a very spectacular sport."

It will be a tense and frenetic time for wrestling over the next 50 or so days before that showdown in Buenos Aires with squash and baseball-softball.

Should it lose, the likely consequences do not really bear thinking about for aficionados, and even if it wins, it won't have recovered its status as an Olympic core sport.

The pressure, moreover, is likely to remain for some time, until the sport demonstrates beyond question that it can change in constructive and progressive ways, even without the gun of potential Olympic ejection pointing at its head.

But the early signs are that under Lalovic's spirited leadership this ancient sport is starting to head in the right direction.

This weekend's pilgrimage to the place where Olympic wrestling held centre-stage for more than 1,000 years is as much a sign of this as the reforms that are starting to change the face of the modern sport.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be here.