What Wrestling Must Do To Earn Its Way Back Into the 2020 Olympics

By:  Christian Deme, Ruling Sports Intern (Twitter:  @TheSportingBiz)

On February 12, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the hotly debated decision to remove wrestling from the summer Olympic program beginning in 2020. Since the announcement of its removal, wrestling proponents have been lobbying the IOC to reconsider its decision, but face competition from the baseball/softball and squash federations.

The IOC is the supreme international authority on Olympic governance per the Olympic Charter. The IOC is considered to be the “guardian” of the Olympic Games and is the ultimate authority on any question relating to the Games, including the determination of which sports are featured in each Olympics.[1]

The general meeting of the members of the IOC is called the Session.  The Session is referred to in the Olympic Charter as the “IOC’s supreme organ.” Generally, Sessions are held once per year, require a quorum of over half the total membership of the IOC, and its decisions are final.

In the Session following each Olympic Games, the IOC reviews the Programme of the Olympic Games.  The Programme covers which sports and events will be featured in each Olympics.

Upon a proposal by the Executive Board of the IOC, the Session has the option to review the addition of sports to the Programme, so long as the total number of sports does not exceed 28 total. When the IOC is lobbied to add a new sport to the Olympic program, it considers the following criteria:[2]

  • Value added by the sport to the Olympic Games.
  • Governance. This category includes good governance principles, including the existence of a code of ethics and gender equity in the governance body.
  • The history and tradition of the sport. This category includes the frequency of World Championships and World Junior Championships.
  • The universality of the sport. This category includes the number of national federations that have participated in the World Championships of the sport, the number of active national federations, and the global spread of success in the sport.
  • The popularity of the sport. This category includes factors such as general public appeal, youth appeal, the popularity of the athletes, the number of spectators, press coverage, tickets sold, sponsors, and digital media.
  • Athletes. This category includes athlete representation in each international federation, the existence of an athletes’ commission in the international federation, athletic career programs, and athletes’ health factors, such as the number of doping tests and violations.
  • Development of the IF/Sport. This category covers the IF’s financial distribution system to support the National Federations and continental associations, the technical evolution of the sport, gender equality, the existence of a Sport for All Commission, the transparency and fairness on the field of play, and environmental policies.
  • Finance. This category covers accounting, income and expenditure, venue costs, technology requirements, and the costs and complexity of television production.

The IOC recently released a shortlist of three sports to be considered for inclusion beginning in the Summer Olympic Games of 2020. The three sports competing for this one spot are: wrestling, baseball/softball, and squash.

The IOC’s decision to drop wrestling in February was based on low television ratings, low public popularity at the London Games, the lack of athletes on the federation’s decision-making bodies, the lack of a women’s commission, the non-existence of ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.

Meanwhile, the IOC’s decision to drop baseball from its summer program was based largely on Major League Baseball’s drug testing falling short of Olympic standards, as well as MLB’s refusal to stop its schedule to permit major league players from participating in the Olympics.

Squash players and associations have been lobbying the Olympics to receive entry as an official sport, but have not had any luck to date.

As the September voting date grows closer, all three sports will be reaching out to the IOC members to make their cases for why their sport should be added to the 2020 Summer Olympics. 

Wrestling and squash seem to be the favorites going into the vote.  The wrestling federation, FILA, has taken steps to address the IOC’s concerns since it dropped the sport.  FILA is working to form a plan to address the marketing issues around the sport, feeding off of a vigorous social media campaign. Additionally, FILA has elected a new president and has included more women in its decision-making roles as well as opened up participation to women in the sport through added weight classes.

Squash has also taken significant steps to boost its image and make its first appearance in an Olympics event. According to World Squash Federation President Narayana Ramachandran in an interview with The Star, “Squash is played in 185 countries by millions across the world…squash also offers genuine medal opportunities to a growing number of countries and has the prospect of new nations on the podium.”  Squash has also shown its growing international presence. Of the women’s top 20 rankings, eleven countries are represented.

Meanwhile, baseball still has not addressed one of the IOC’s major reasons for removing it as a sport. Commissioner Bud Selig has made it known that baseball is not willing to put its season on hold to accommodate the Olympics, and therefore will prohibit MLB players from participating in a baseball event.

It looks like the final Olympic spot will go to either wrestling or squash.  Both sports have demonstrated a willingness to address IOC concerns, and only time will tell which sport has made the most compelling presentation to the IOC come September.

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