In which Nenad Lalovic tells it straight up

The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach of Germany, was elected in 2013. His term is for eight years. The rules allow him a follow-on term of four more years. Presumably, he will be IOC president until 2025.

If you think it’s too early for the who-will-be-the-next-IOC president parlor game, you picked a bad week to stop sniffing glue. Be assured the politicking and positioning is already well underway — just as it was with Bach during the years that Belgium’s Jacques Rogge was IOC boss. 

The IOC is a European institution. Thus odds are its next leader will be European, just as — again — Bach succeeded Rogge, and Rogge succeeded Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain. For now, keep your eyes on, in no particular order: Switzerland’s Patrick Baumann, secretary general of the basketball federation FIBA and head of the LA 2028 coordination commission; Belgium’s Harvard MBA-trained Pierre-Olivier Beckers-Viejant, head of the Paris 2024 coordination panel; the increasingly influential Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., currently the IOC first vice president; and Nenad Lalovic, head of the wrestling federation UWW and, now, like Samaranch, a member of the IOC’s policy-making executive board.

Keep in mind that just four-plus years ago, wrestling’s future as an Olympic sport was in serious doubt.

Now Lalovic, a businessman from Belgrade, Serbia, who orchestrated its return to the fold, is a member of the IOC’s most powerful inner circle — as the representative of the more than two dozen Summer Games sports. 

 Wrestling federation president, IOC executive board member Nenad Lalovic // Getty Images

Wrestling federation president, IOC executive board member Nenad Lalovic // Getty Images

And as he showed yet again over the weekend, he is plain-spoken and unafraid to take positions in defense of his own sport and the IOC itself.

Understand, too, that Lalovic — who is a great guy, 100 percent — is also not afraid to bang on the United States. And why not? 

To be sure, wrestling has important backers in the United States. But without the Russians, no way wrestling is back on the Olympic program. No way. 

Further:

It should be clearly and completely understood that for all the noise in the United States and other western nations around the Russian-related doping issues in recent months and years, the intense advocacy on the matter, particularly from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in particular and its seeming agent, the New York Times, has not been well-received in many European quarters; the Russians remain intensely important in Olympic circles; and the IOC believes a significant chapter to the story came to a close at the end of the 2018 Winter Games.

It’s important in these matters to see how things really work. In the Olympic universe, relationships are key, the Europeans run the show and the Russians — for emphasis — really, really matter.

The U.S. biathlon team, for instance, boycotted the final World Cup of the winter season, held March 20-25 in Tyumen, Russia, citing in particular the doping issue. The point of this statement was — what, exactly? To embarrass the Russians, who have a long memory?

In Tyumen, the French star Martin Fourcade won two of the three men’s events there. 

Keep in mind that the very same Fourcade, a winter sports star, had just days before been named president of the Paris Summer Olympics 2024 athletes’ commission.

For his part, Lalovic — who is also a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency foundation board — in an interview in early March with the website Inside the Games called for negotiations to help see Russia reinstated by both WADA and by the track and field federation IAAF.

IOC executive board members typically do not freelance with such statements; the IOC leadership almost surely feels exactly the same way.

Over the weekend Lalovic was in Iowa, of all places. He had some further important things to say. But they need to be placed in context.

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against, among others, seven Russian billionaires, one of whom is the son of a former Putin judo sparring partner. Meanwhile, the Americans and Russian governments have been expelling dozens of each other’s diplomats; the Russians couldn’t get visas to come to Iowa. 

As a backdrop: when the IOC president was at the White House last summer for a meeting with President Trump that meeting did not go well. 

So Lalovic was in Iowa City, Iowa, for the 2018 men’s freestyle World Cup, essentially the annual international dual meet championship, featuring eight top wrestling nations. There he issued a statement that said, and absolutely you should read between the lines: 

“Like many federations we face problems with countries allowing their politics to interfere with competition. For wrestling, this problem has been visible among our stakeholders. No longer can we allow political problems to enter the field of play. We must fight against any opponent of our sport community with all the means we have.”

It may or may not be so, as USA Wrestling noted in a statement, that the Russian wrestlers waited until time was getting short to apply for their visas.

Doesn’t matter.

What matters, instead, is the perception, and 100 percent those optics are not good for the United States, which is what Lalovic is saying.

The United States invited the world to this meet. 

Whatever the reason, the Russians didn’t make it. India and Mongolia came instead. 

 India and the United States greeting at the start of the Iowa City meet // Tony Rotundo / UWW 

India and the United States greeting at the start of the Iowa City meet // Tony Rotundo / UWW 

When you invite guests to your house, that’s a matter of profound hospitality, particularly in Olympic circles, and just like the Americans snubbing the Russians in biathlon in Tyumen, for the Russians not being able to make it to Iowa for wrestling amounts to two sides of the same coin: completely, totally disrespectful. 

Visas, politics, diplomacy, embassy staffing levels, allegations of poisoned spies in Britain, whatever — none of it matters.

“If every international political conflict is transferred to the field of play,” Lalovic went on in his statement, “and we fail to respond, then all of sport would be in jeopardy. Every nation and every sport on the Olympic program must respect the Olympic charter and the nature of their sport in general.

“We will never allow any disrespect to our nations, nor will the IOC.”

The statement goes on to say, in that fascinating way that such statements have of leaving some of the really juicy stuff for the very end:

“United World Wrestling is reviewing all host cities and national federations to ensure they have no outstanding political disputes which might conflict with the idea of open and fair competition. Also, nations who do not allow for entrance of other nations will not be considered for hosting future events.”

What in that says U-S-A! U-S-A! 

Hint:

Listen to Nenad Lalovic, who is a rising star in Olympic circles. He tells it straight up. That’s good for everyone to understand. 

Especially a considerable number of Americans, because a reality check about what’s what right about now would serve a lot of people a lot of good.