Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Canada's Carol Huynh (red) takes on Japan's Hitomi Obara (blue) in the women's freestyle 48 kg semi-final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, Wednesday August 8/2012. Huynh lost the match 3-1. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Canada's Carol Huynh (red) takes on Japan's Hitomi Obara (blue) in the women's freestyle 48 kg semi-final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, Wednesday August 8/2012. Huynh lost the match 3-1.

(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Wrestling community floored by IOC decision to remove sport from 2020 Games Add to ...

It was a move the wrestling world never saw coming; a stone-cold stunner.

In a single vote, the International Olympic Committee's executive board recommended Tuesday that one of its oldest athletic endeavours be dropped from the yet-to-be-awarded 2020 Summer Games.

It's an endorsement that still requires ratification by the IOC general assembly in September, but there is little doubt wrestling is in for the fight of its Olympic life - one that might surpass anything seen on the mats.

How did this happen? Quietly and suddenly.

While it was known the IOC wanted to limit the number of athletes at the Summer Games - and still remain "relevant to sports fans of all generations" - it was thought modern pentathlon was most vulnerable. The arcane sport steeped in a military background features five events (running, fencing, shooting, horseback riding and swimming) and is not practised in as many countries as wrestling.

It does, however, come with friends in high places. Modern pentathlon has the backing of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president, among others. The sport also knows how to play to its strengths outside the field of play.

A source told French news service AFP the IOC executive board vote had come down to wrestling and modern pentathlon and that it was "very close, maybe one or two votes separating them. The trouble was while modern pentathlon and tae kwon do did effective lobbying, wrestling thought they were safe and did none at all."

Wrestling, which has had a place in the Olympics since 1896, knew it had to make changes.

The sport altered its format after the 2000 Sydney Games, switching to three, two-minute rounds to make the matches more entertaining and fan friendly.

Wrestling did more to promote its stars knowing how quickly they changed, even disappeared, from one Olympics to another.

In 2004, women were added to the Olympic tournament, much to Canada's delight since Tonya Verbeek and Carol Huynh would go on to produce one gold, two silver and two bronze medals over a span of three Olympics.

But going from a sport in need of tweaks to one on the brink? No one involved had that kind of vision.

"The political influences appear to have gotten in the way," said Dave McKay, Canadian national men's freestyle coach at 2012 Olympics and the man who helped Daniel Igali to Olympic gold in 2000. "Normally, we would have been aware of it. We were aware of some things, like when the IOC went from eight to seven weight classes [to limit the number of competitors]. And we were aware Greco-Roman could be dropped, but not being dropped from the entire Olympic program.

"Maybe it's the dollars and TV revenue. You'll see a response from the Russians that will be quite dramatic."

Fellow Canadian coach Marty Calder agreed: "The powers in the sport - Russia and the U.S., China, Japan - they will not let this go easy. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has trained with the national [wrestling] team ... I do know that we have some stronger nations that are going to fight this."

Canada's response was quick and united.

Both Wrestling Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee issued statements stating surprise and regret over the IOC recommendation.

Wrestling Canada president Don Ryan thought it was a joke when he first heard his sport was on its hands and knees. "For us wrestling enthusiasts, it's like taking hockey out of the Olympics," he said.

National women's coach Leigh Vierling dubbed the situation a "wake-up call. We do need to always advocate for our sport and not be confident." His prized athlete, Huynh, the 2008 gold medalist, was equally hopeful there was enough time and willingness for the IOC to consider wrestling's merits, not just its shortcomings.

"I was pretty emotional at first because I thought wrestling was out of the Olympics completely," Huynh said of the recommendation.

"I think it's up to FILA, our international governing body, to make sure the IOC gets an earful of opinions.

"There are more than 180 countries that participate in wrestling. That's a lot of voices that need to be heard."

FILA is holding a members' conference in Thailand this weekend, and will discuss what to do next. Wrestlers will, however, compete at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games.

Wrestling is now on a list with seven sports, from wakeboarding to squash to sport climbing, with only one being added for 2020. Calder didn't want to contemplate the long-term effects in Canada should the news be crippling.

"It wouldn't be good, funding-wise, for sure," he said.

With a report from Hayley Mick

Which sport would you drop from the Olympics? Vote here

 

In the know

Top videos »