IOC short-lists three sports


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The ballroom here at the Lenexpo Convention Center here was jammed. TV crews and photographers assumed their positions, cameras trained on wrestling supporters in the front row of audience seats, immediately behind the ladies and gentlemen of the press. The tension was thick. Up on the dais, Mark Adams, the International Olympic Committee's spokesman, started to explain that the IOC's policy-making executive board had Wednesday afternoon decided to short-list just three sports for review this September by the all-members assembly in Buenos Aires. Everyone did quick math. Three sports in. That meant five were out. Which three?

Adams started to read off the first of the three: "Wrestling," he said, and in the instant before the place erupted someone in the wresting group summed it all with just one word that echoed across the hall: "Yeah!"

It took several long moments before order was restored, and Adams could then read off the other two: "Baseball and softball," he said, and then, "With apologies to the others, squash."

Jubilant wrestling officials meet the press after Wednesday's IOC executive board vote

With that, the IOC sought to turn the page in one of the most convoluted procedural and substantive fixes it has ever produced. Time, and only time, will tell whether it got this just right -- or profoundly wrong.

Cut were sport climbing, karate, roller sports, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art of wushu.

In a statement, IOC president Jacques Rogge noted that "it was never going to be an easy decision" but this was a "good decision."

Thomas Bach, an IOC vice president and leading candidate to succeed Rogge in voting for the IOC presidency, said, "This is a good mixture between team sports, individual sports and martial arts."

The executive board voting Wednesday -- which followed 30-minute presentations by each of the eight sports -- proved complex. A sport made it through with a majority vote of the 14-member board; Rogge, a 15th potential ballot, did not vote.

The first round did not portend what was to come: wrestling made it through in just one ballot, with a majority of 8. The second round then took seven ballots before the combined baseball/softball bid defeated karate, 9-5. Squash got through in three rounds in the third with a majority of 8.

The IOC will pick one of the three -- or, perhaps, none -- in voting Sept. 8.

If the full membership selects wrestling for the sole vacant spot on the program, then the review process will have resulted in, essentially, no change -- at a time when the IOC is keen to be seen to be more vibrant in reaching out to a younger audience.

At the same time, the IOC has always sought to balance its traditions.

Therein lies the considerable tension.

A quick review of how the IOC got to Wednesday's action:

After every Games, the IOC reviews the line-up on the Games program.

By rule, the IOC sets these caps: 28 sports on the program and 10,500 athletes.

In 2009, the IOC decided to add rugby sevens and golf for the 2016 and 2020 Games.

For 2020, the review meant there would be 25 "core" sports plus golf and rugby. That meant -- and still means -- there would be one, and only one, open spot on the 2020 program.

In February, to considerable surprise, after its program commission -- chaired by Italy's Franco Carraro -- put every sport through a survey of 39 criteria, the executive board dropped wrestling from the core.

Wrestling's governing body, which goes by the acronym FILA, never saw it coming.

After all, wrestling had been on the ancient Games program. It had been on the program of every program in the modern Olympics.

In response, the federation got rid of its president, the Swiss Raphael Martinetti, and elected a new one, Serbian Nenad Lalovic. It enacted a series of rules changes aimed at making the sport more attractive.

"Wrestling needed to make the rules changes they did, and once they did, it gave the executive board an avenue to put wrestling on the short-list because it was a different wrestling than they saw in February," said Jim Scherr, the former U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive who is now a member of the FILA bureau.

Malaysia's seven-time squash world champion, Nicol David, said, "This is a great day for squash as it takes us one step closer to realizing our long-held ambition to join the Olympic Games. I said to the executive board that the one big regret in my career is that I have never had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games, but I would happily trade all my seven world titles for the chance of Olympic gold."

Baseball and softball formed a single international federation, the World Baseball Softball Confederation. They also laid out a plan to shorten their tournament and and play at one venue. Also, Major League Baseball and its players' association sent the IOC a letter confirming "our continuing support and confidence in finding the best possible … solution" for the "participation of professional players."

IOC sports director Christophe Dubi noted, "…They gave important assurance from the leagues that solutions will be found and this was presented today."

Both baseball and softball were kicked out of the Games in 2005, effective in 2008. Baseball had become part of the Olympics in 1992, softball in 1996. Don Porter, the longtime head of the softball effort, was visibly moved.

He said, "I have been through this a long, long time. I have been disappointed before. I just hoped we had done enough.

"This is like the seventh inning. Now we are heading to the ninth. We have runners on base and are going to work hard to bring those runners home."

Lalovic, the new wrestling president, used a different metaphor:

"The match is not finished," he said, adding a moment later, "We have to stay in the Olympics. This is our goal."