Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Paris, already gearing itself up as the prospective host of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, will welcome the quintessential Olympic sport of wrestling this week when it hosts the World Wrestling Championships at the AccorHotels Arena in Boulevard de Bercy, which run from tomorrow until next Sunday (August 27).

In what will be only the second World Championships organised under the aegis of the reformed International Federation (IF), now known as United World Wrestling (UWW), following the 2015 version in Las Vegas, the sport’s followers will be focusing their attention on medals.

Since 2005, these Championships have brought together men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling under the same roof, as well as featuring women’s freestyle events.

Among the medal contenders heading to the French capital include several reigning Olympic champions, such as Russia's Roman Vlasov, who claimed the men's Greco-Roman 75 kilogram title in Rio and is set to feature in the 80kg weight division this time round.

Others hotly tipped for glory include Vladimir Khinchegashvili, the men's 57kg freestyle gold medallist at the Olympics last year, and the Japanese duo of Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho, who have won seven Olympic golds between them since Athens 2004.

So will the medal predictions come to pass?

For those who follow the sport, such speculation is endlessly fascinating. But it is also something of a luxury given that, a little over four years ago, wrestling’s future looked suddenly bleak as it teetered on the edge of being excluded from the modern Olympics, of which it has been a part since the first Games of 1896 in Athens.

Russia's Roman Vlasov, right, will seek a world title at 80kg in Paris this coming week ©Getty Images
Russia's Roman Vlasov, right, will seek a world title at 80kg in Paris this coming week ©Getty Images

On February 12, 2013, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Executive Board voted to recommend that wrestling be dropped from the Games as a core sport from 2016 onwards.

The effect, within a sport that has existed in various forms for more than 4,000 years, was seismic.

From appearing to be on its feet, wrestling – a key part of the ancient Olympics and a founder sport in the modern Games - was suddenly pinned to the mat.

British wrestler Non Evans spoke for many when she told the BBC: "I didn't see it coming. I'm very shocked, surprised and disappointed. Wrestling is one of the most ancient sports, but I think the world has changed.

"This will have a huge impact on wrestling. When you are young you aspire to compete at an Olympics or World Cup. When a sport is not at the Olympics, as a child you will choose a different sport."

Following the London 2012 Olympics, the IOC's Executive Committee had conducted a study of the 26 core sports in terms of their success in London as well as world-wide grassroots support, television ratings, ticket sales and anti-doping activity. The plan was to trim one core sport so that, from the 2020 Olympics onwards, there would be 25 core sports and one non-core sport at each Games.

Before this fateful meeting in Lausanne, it seemed, no-one thought wrestling was in the frame to be dropped. The decision meant it would have to take its chances of becoming the non-core sport at Tokyo 2020 along with seven other aspiring newcomers – baseball/softball, squash, karate, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu and roller sports.

"This is not the end of the process, this is purely a recommendation," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "This is not about what's wrong with wrestling but what is good for the Games.”

From a wrestling point of view, that statement sounded ominous rather than reassuring.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

At the time of the February decision, Nenad Lalovic had been a member of the ruling Bureau at the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) since 2006. Appointed as President of the poorly resourced Serbian Wrestling Federation in 2000, he had built up the sport in his country with financial help from his successful business career in construction and car dealerships.

In the wake of the Lausanne recommendation, he made his bewilderment and anger clear to insidethegames.

"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 said. 

"For us, it was really a surprise. FILA had filled out a questionnaire, which all the Federations had to fulfil. 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."

Nenad Lalovic speaking in defence of his sport's continuing Olympic status at the crucial 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires in September 2013 ©Getty Images
Nenad Lalovic speaking in defence of his sport's continuing Olympic status at the crucial 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires in September 2013 ©Getty Images

By February 15, Lalovic found himself in a position to mobilise the huge amount of international support that has arisen for his sport and to push on with urgent modernisation and change ahead of the Buenos Aires deadline.

He became interim President of the IF – then known as FILA - in place of Raphael Martinetti after the Swiss leader lost a vote of confidence at an emergency board meeting.

On February 17, it was announced that a special committee had been set up by Lalovic to coordinate the sport’s campaign to stay in the Games.

Russia and the United States, not normally natural allies, had led the protests.

"Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced," said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee.

"It is important to remember that [this] action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world."

Alexander Zhukov, President of the Russian Olympic Committee, added: "I want to appeal to the International Olympic Committee on behalf of the Russian Olympic Committee with the request to keep wrestling in the Olympic programme. 

"I think it's extraordinarily important, not only for Russian sport and the million wrestling enthusiasts in Russia, but more broadly for the world Olympic Movement.

"We will, of course, be putting all our efforts into convincing the members of the International Olympic Committee not to exclude wrestling from the Olympic programme.”

Mikhail Mamiashvili, President of the Russian Wrestling Federation, claimed Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was preparing to lobby personally on the sport's behalf and supported the setting up of the new committee.

Also supporting the group's lobbying efforts was arguably the greatest wrestler in history, Alexander Karelin, the triple Olympic champion.

A Facebook group called Save Olympic Wrestling was launched, attracting more than 60,000 likes on the first day, while a petition started on the White House website swiftly gathered more than 21,000 signatures.

The day after the IOC Executive announcement, there was a significant glimmer of light for wrestling. The original IOC plan had been for only one sport to be recommended as the non-core addition to the Tokyo Games when the IOC membership was asked to approve the change at the Annual Session in Buenos Aires in September 2013.

But IOC President Jacques Rogge had to bow to pressure and eight contending sports were offered to chance to make further presentations to the IOC Executive Board at the SportAccord meeting in St Petersburg from May 29 to 31. Three of them would then be shortlisted for inclusion by the IOC membership.

Jacques Rogge was President of the IOC during the time of wrestling's battle to stay on the Olympic programme ©Getty Images
Jacques Rogge was President of the IOC during the time of wrestling's battle to stay on the Olympic programme ©Getty Images

The tide of opinion was running wrestling’s way – but in order for the sport to achieve its ends, swift and serious changes were required.

"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,” said Lalovic.

“A group of coaches, referees, Olympic champions are working on it."

Lalovic 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 said. 

"That we have solved now by creating a new Athletes' Commission.

"Every continental conference has a woman involved and there are two women on the Bureau. But it's still the minimum - we want more women to participate in the decision making.

"FILA was too far from the IOC in many points of view and this is maybe the result of what happened. 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 held talks on March 7 with then IOC President. "I told him that we understood the message the IOC was sending us by dropping us as a core sport and that I didn't blame them,” he said.

"We have been asleep for too long and we didn't modernise or adapt the sport like we should have done. I told them that we are now trying to fix this and then I listened.

"The IOC's process has given wrestling a golden opportunity to stay within the Olympics.”

By the time wrestling kept itself in the game by reaching the shortlist of three in St Petersburg, Lalovic had actioned a wide swath of reforms and improvements.

In April, international management firm TSE Consulting was appointed to develop a strategic plan. In May the sport announced it would be replacing two men’s events with women’s events in the freestyle division to increase gender equality.

On May 18, Lalovic was officially confirmed as FILA President, and a series of rule changes were adopted.

They included ensuring matches were made up out of two three-minute sessions instead of three two-minute periods. Scoring was to become cumulative instead of the previous two-out-of-three system and a takedown was upgraded to two points, making it more valuable than a point for the pushout or a penalty point.

Other changes included trying to stamp out passivity by awarding penalty points to make bouts more exciting.

Constitutional changes included establishing mandatory women's vice-presidency role and giving athletes a greater role in the running of the sport.

Triple Olympic wrestling champion Alexander Karelin was among the powerful voices that spoke up for the sport as its future in the Games was weighed in the balance by the IOC ©Getty Images
Triple Olympic wrestling champion Alexander Karelin was among the powerful voices that spoke up for the sport as its future in the Games was weighed in the balance by the IOC ©Getty Images

In July, Lalovic announced he had increased the budget for out-of-competition drug testing “by five times”, saying “It is now €100,000 (£86,000/$131,000)".

Later that month, the sport nudged the IOC by holding a special tournament in Olympia, just 500 metres from where Milo of Croton, the famous ancient wrestler, had won six Olympic titles in the 6th Century BC.

So wrestling, flipped over onto its back and placed in a stranglehold by the IOC, had twisted free and now stood panting and ready to resume its battle for survival at the Games by reclaiming its place in Buenos Aires.

"It has been a journey through troubled waters but we can now see the harbour here in Buenos Aires," Lalovic said.

On September 8, wrestling duly resumed its place on the Olympic programme, polling 49 votes to win in the first of a possible two rounds of voting, with baseball/softball coming second with 24 votes, and squash third with 22.

"Today is the most important day in the 2,000-year history of our sport," Lalovic commented. "We feel the weight of that history. Remaining on the Olympic programme is crucial to wrestling's survival."

IOC members nevertheless left the presentation team in no doubt that they would remain very much under scrutiny with a string of probing questions relating to rule changes, gender parity and other "mistakes", including allegations of corruption, that first got wrestling into trouble.

Since then, the process of change within wrestling has continued at a steady rate.

In 2014, a re-branding of the governing body saw FILA become the UWW.

In 2015 the combined World Championships in Greco-Roman and freestyle were held in the United States for the first time, with Las Vegas staging competition.

Eighteen gold medals were awarded across the men’s and women’s wrestling events at Rio 2016, but the UWW acted swiftly to suspend three referees suspected of “suspicious officiating”.

In September 2016, the UWW announced it would be financing a new programme focusing on the “development and education” of its officials.

In June this year, the UWW offered evidence of how seriously it is enforcing anti-doping measures as it suspended Azerbaijan’s London 2012 gold medallist and Rio 2016 silver medallist Toghrul Asgarov for a year after he tested positive for higenamine.

Later in June, the IOC confirmed changes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme, including the reduction of wrestling's quota by 56 entries. The cutback was part of the 2013 agreement wrestling had made while lobbying its way back into the 2020 Games.

Wrestling will have a total of 288 total athletes for the 2020 Games, with 16 wrestlers at each of the 18 weight categories.

“We’ve always understood that being voted back onto the Olympic programme meant maturing into an active and engaged member of the Olympic movement,” said Lalovic. "These adjustments will help the Olympic Games move closer to accomplishing the goals set out in Agenda 2020.”

The bad neighbours of the past are now very much solid citizens in the Olympic world.