In Sydney in 2000, who can forget Rulon Gardner beating the Russian man-mountain, Alexander Karelin, for gold?
Or in Beijing in 2008, the brilliance of Henry Cejudo, who came from the humblest of beginnings to claim gold?
Or last summer in London, the awesome ferocity of Jordan Burroughs? He had said beforehand that nothing was going to get in his way of his gold medal, and nothing did.
Wrestling has offered up so many compelling gold-medal memories at the Olympics, in particular for the U.S. team.
And that’s very likely what they’ll be going forward: memories.
The International Olympic Committee’s policy-making executive board, in what some viewed as a surprise, moved Tuesday to cut wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games as part of a wide-ranging review of all the sports on the program.
It’s a surprise only to those who don’t understand the way the IOC works.
“This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics,” the IOC spokesman, Mark Adams, said at a news conference. “In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling. It’s what’s right with the 25 core sports.”
Adams, as ever, is being diplomatic.
In fact, it’s totally what’s wrong with wrestling, and in particular its international governing body, which goes by the acronym FILA. Otherwise, the sport wouldn’t have been cut. That’s just common sense.
The IOC move came as part of a mandate to cut one sport to get to a “core” program of 25 sports. One sport of the 26 from London last summer had to go. Those were the rules.
Two sports were most at risk, as everyone inside IOC circles has known for weeks: modern pentathlon and wrestling.
All the sports on the program were subjected to a questionnaire from the IOC program commission purporting to analyze 39 different factors: TV ratings, ticket sales, a sport’s anti-doping policies, gender issues, global participation and more.
The questionnaire did not include official rankings. It did not include recommendations.
Even so, it was abundantly clear that pentathlon was No. 1 on the hit list and wrestling No. 2.
Pentathlon has been at risk ever since the IOC’s Mexico City session in 2002. The sport involves five different disciplines — fencing, horseback riding, shooting, swimming and running — and, obviously, there just aren’t that many people in any country who do that. But it traces itself back to the founder of the modern Games, the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and has waged a clever political campaign, instituting just enough modern touches, like the use of laser pistols instead of real guns, for instance.
Wrestling brought women into its sport at the Athens Games in 2004. It also has reconfigured some weight classes. But aside from those developments, it was pretty much the same as it ever had been — pretty much the same as it had been in the ancient Games in Greece way back when. Ticket sales in London lagged, when virtually every other sport was a sell-out, a clear sign something was amiss.
Thus, heading into Tuesday’s board meeting, the decision would be — as usual — subject to politics, conflict of interest, emotion and sentiment.
This is the way the IOC works. It may or may not make sense to outsiders that, for instance, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a first vice president of the modern pentathlon union, sits on the executive board while the fate of modern pentathlon is being decided.
But this is the way it is.
The IOC voted Tuesday by secret ballot. We will never know whether Samaranch Jr. voted. Frankly, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that he is matters. The proof of that is his eminently convincing win last summer at the IOC session in London when he was elected to the board.
As an aside, it’s early in the race for the 2020 Summer Games — the vote won’t be until September — but Tuesday might be an intriguing indicator. Madrid is, of course, one of the three cities in the race, along with Tokyo and Istanbul, and Samaranch Jr. is a key player for Madrid.
And pentathlon. And pentathlon surely proved to have political influence within the IOC.
The pentathlon World Cup next week in Palm Springs, Calif. — featuring five Olympic medalists from London, including both the men’s and women’s gold medalists, now promises to be a celebration — not a dirge.
“We are very open but we know where we have to go together,” Klaus Schormann, the president of the modern pentathlon federation, said in a telephone interview from Germany.
Taekwondo — seemingly forever battling for its place on the program — also showed political smarts. A few days ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge traveled to Korea, where taekwondo was developed. Though the sport’s medals were spread among a number of nations at the London Games, it still carries enormous prestige in Seoul, and when IOC president Jacques Rogge held a personal meeting with South Korea president-elect Park Geun Hye, what was one of the things she told him: keep taekwondo in the Games, please.
What was FILA’s political strategy? Nothing, apparently.
Who was advocating inside the IOC board for wrestling? No one, seemingly — of all the biggest wrestling countries, none have seats on the IOC board.
A belated, after-the-vote statement on the FILA website declared that it was “greatly astonished” by the IOC action and would take “all necessary measures” to try to get back on the program.
“Greatly astonished”? Like gambling in the movie, “Casablanca.” Shocking, just shocking.
At the top of the FILA website — it’s Feb. 13, mind you — the page greets you with “Season’s Greetings!” and best wishes for a “peaceful and successful New Year 2013!” This is an international federation that just isn’t up to speed.
The way this works now is that wrestling will join seven other sports — the likes of wushu, squash, baseball and softball — in trying to get onto the program for 2020.
Bluntly, the IOC move Tuesday probably signals the end for baseball and softball, which are trying to get back on as one entity, not two.
If the IOC is going to let any one sport back on, it might — stress, might — be wrestling. “I would have to think the IOC made an uninformed decision,” Jim Scherr, the former USOC chief executive officer and Olympic wrestler (fifth place at the 1988 Seoul Games), said Tuesday, urging reconsideration.
The current USOC chief executive, Scott Blackmun, said in a statement: “We knew that today would be a tough day for American athletes competing in whatever sport was identified by the IOC Executive Board.
“Given the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality, we were surprised when the decision was announced. It is important to remember that today’s 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. In the meantime, we will fully support USA Wrestling and its athletes.”
To get back on the program now, though, the fact is wrestling faces considerable odds. This, too, is the way the IOC works.