As much as amateur wrestling would like to avoid politics, it has no choice but to engage in them if it wants to remain in the Olympics beyond 2016.
On Saturday at the Las Vegas Convention Center, USA Wrestling announced it was participating in the “Save Olympic Wrestling Coalition,” which will work primarily behind the scenes to convince the International Olympic Committee to reverse its decision in February to drop the sport from the games beginning in 2020.
“We’re trying to galvanize our sport worldwide,” said Rich Bender, executive director for USA Wrestling. “There’s a lot that has to be done, and there isn’t much time in which to do it.”
The coalition, which includes Russia, Iran, China, Cuba, Korea, Canada, Japan, Germany and Greece, hopes to lobby the IOC’s executive committee, which made the decision in February to drop wrestling as one of 25 Olympic core sports.
Hiring lobbyists costs money. So does sending the representatives of the sport around the world for the various meetings where wrestling’s future will be debated and eventually voted upon.
The first meeting is the IOC’s executive board’s gathering at the end of May in St. Petersburg, Russia. The second and more critical meeting will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September, when the IOC’s general assembly ultimately will decide whether wrestling remains or is eliminated from the Olympics.
According to John Bardis, who is involved with the coalition’s development and fundraising, approximately $3 million needs to be raised in the next few months to sustain the effort. “KeepOlympicWrestling.com,” a website dedicated to the movement, is soliciting donations.
“It’s our belief that every American who has ever participated in wrestling needs to have their fingerprints on this movement,” Bardis said, adding that more than $1 million has been raised to support the effort. “The absence of wrestling in the Olympics is unthinkable.”
John Smith and Bruce Baumgartner, two of America’s greatest Olympic wrestlers, agree.
“We’re looking to preserve our Olympic history,” said Smith, a gold medalist in 1988 and 1992 who coaches at Oklahoma State. “There’s a lot of kids who want to realize their dreams, and we need to help them.”
Baumgartner, who competed in four Olympics and was a gold medalist in 1984 and 1992, said being confrontational with the IOC won’t achieve the desired result.
“Diplomacy works better than being adversarial,” he said. “We need to make (the IOC) feel good about keeping wrestling and make it look like it was their idea to keep it in the Olympics.”
FILA, wrestling’s world governing body, has undergone major changes in its leadership in the past few months, and Bender hopes through the coalition there will be support for the acting president, Nenad Lalovic, and the 177 countries under the FILA charter will work together to keep the sport in the Olympics.
“I think we can expect some changes,” Bender said, referring to rules, administration and the way wrestling is presented. “But protecting the integrity of our sport is still at the core of what we are.”
The U.S. Open championships concluded Saturday at the convention center. Las Vegas will host the World Championships in 2015 at Orleans Arena.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.