Daniel Igali, man of hope and Canadian Olympic champion, has made a promise he is not afraid to share. Should the International Olympic Committee turn its back on wrestling and drop it from the 2020 Summer Games, he will turn his back, too.
He will not watch the Games on television nor will he have anything to do with them. His connection with the Olympics will be broken, but his love for wrestling will endure. He is keen to save the sport because of what the sport has done for him and what it can do for others.
For that reason, the 39-year-old Igali has overcome the shock of hearing how the IOC executive board has recommended wrestling be removed as one of the 25 core sports, and he is pushing back. The proposal, announced Tuesday, will be put to a vote of the IOC’s general assembly this September and could rid the Olympics of one of its oldest, most iconic athletic endeavours. The 2000 Olympic gold medalist who celebrated by dancing around a Canadian flag, then kissing it, is already in battle mode.
“I’ve called the IOC member from Nigeria [Habu Gumel],” Igali said from Eniwari, the Nigerian village of his birth, where his foundation has built a school and where he teaches youngsters how to wrestle. “I hope to meet with him and convince him not to vote for it. All the other countries should do the same thing with their IOC members so essentially [the recommendation] will be dead. If the IOC goes to Facebook and the social media, they will see the anger.
“If the Olympics does not have wrestling, I will have no business with the Olympics.”
When Igali walks and works among the children of Eniwari, he said they stare and follow him. To them, he’s more than an Olympian; he’s a Nigerian who immigrated to Canada and found a better life. He is proof there are ways out of poverty and violence and political unrest, all the struggles that sent Igali headlong into his favourite sport.
As a preteen, he wrestled with his brothers and cousins. At 16, he entered his first official tournament and won it. At 20, he was an African national champ and competed at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. He sought refugee status after the Games and later became a Canadian citizen.
“Wrestling was all I had as a kid to achieve something,” Igali said. “I don’t think I’d have been as good as I was or as passionate as I am without wrestling. I come back and the kids, they see someone who grew up here and got to the Olympics. They see hope. Taking wrestling away is to kill all those dreams, not just in Nigeria, but all over the world. What are these kids going to do? Do judo? It is not the same for them.”
Igali will be a keynote figure in the efforts to save wrestling, which have begun on a number of fronts. IOC president Jacques Rogge, who did not participate in the executive board vote, said Wednesday he would work with wrestling officials to try to salvage their sport. He noted how the wrestling side had also “vowed to adapt the sport and to fight to eventually be included in 2020.”
Clive Llewellyn, a former Olympic wrestler and past president of Wrestling Canada, insisted the right people at the top levels of FILA, wrestling’s governing body, will be making the right arguments. He stands behind the sport’s history and what the Games should represent.
“From my perspective, 8/10ths of the world participates in wrestling,” Llewellyn said. “[But] it’s in parts of the world where advertisers are not very interested. The Olympics has become a big business. The Olympics should be about sport, not big business.”
Igali spoke of that, too, when recalling how the kids on his Eniwari wrestling team reacted when told their sport may no longer be part of the Olympics. He said they were confused, then sad, as if something had been taken away from them. He encouraged them to keep fighting.
“I keep looking at my watch to make sure it’s not April 1,” the Olympic champion said. “It’s like a joke.”