Wrestling Canada president Don Ryan thought it was a joke when he woke up Tuesday to frantic messages about his sport being dropped from the Olympic Games.
He soon found out the fear was all too real.
The International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted in Lausanne, Switzerland, to drop wrestling, one of the world’s oldest sports, from the 2020 Games to make room for another sport.
“It came as a complete surprise,” Ryan said on a conference call. “We had great meetings at the London Games, sold out arenas.
“We had no indication. That’s why I thought someone was telling a joke.”
Freestyle wrestling has been one of Canada’s strong Summer Games events since Daniel Igali of Surrey, B.C., won gold in Sydney, Australia, in 2000.
Since women’s wrestling was included at Athens in 2004, Carol Huynh of Hazelton, B.C. and Tonya Verbeek of Grimsby, Ont., have combined for five medals, including Huynh’s gold in Beijing in 2008.
“Can’t believe IOC is cutting wrestling! Huge blow to our sport all over the world,” Huynh wrote on Twitter.
Wrestlers will compete at the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro, but losing Olympic status in 2020 would be a major blow to an event that has been contested since the first modern Games in 1896.
It had been thought that modern pentathlon or taekwondo would get the axe, but the IOC executive instead made the surprise choice to remove wrestling from its list of 25 “core” sports. The 15-member executive reviews all sports after each Olympics to see which should be kept on.
Ryan cautioned that the executive’s decision is only a recommendation.
He said the sport’s governing body, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, known by its French acronym FILA, would lobby to keep it from being ratified at an IOC meeting in Buenos Aires in September.
There is also a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, in May where the IOC executive will hear presentations from seven sports that hope to be included as “additional” events in 2020.
Wrestling intends to make its own presentation.
“FILA will take all necessary measures to convince the IOC executive board and IOC members of the aberration of such decision against one of the founding sports of the ancient and modern Olympic Games,” the federation said in a statement.
“FILA has always complied with the IOC regulations and is represented in 180 countries, with wrestling being the national sport in a fair amount of them, and the only possibility for athletes to represent their country at the Olympic Games, thus contributing to their universality.”
Wrestling’s governing body is to meet this weekend in Phuket, Thailand, to plot strategy on how to keep freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling on the Olympic program.
“Now we have to roll up our sleeves and fight,” said Ryan.
“I’m trying to get a hold of FILA president Raphael Martinetti. He didn’t know it was coming either. We’re trying to come up with a lobbying plan.”
Justine Bouchard of Wetaskiwin, Alta., a two-time world bronze medallist (2009, 2012) in women’s 63-kilo class, was shocked by the news.
“Wrestling is one of the oldest sports,” the 27-year-old said. “I just feel like any time I ever heard the word Olympics, wrestling always came to mind. I wasn’t expecting this at all.”
Bouchard is gunning for the 2016 Games, but realizes the effect the decision will have on younger wrestlers.
“Absolutely that would be just devastating and a shock, especially if you’re already involved in the sport,” she said. “Maybe if this was your first year and you didn’t know any different, it might not be as big of a deal. Obviously the Olympic Games is like the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the biggest deal.”
Leigh Vierling, coach of Canada’s national women’s team, was also stunned.
“It came as a surprise. First thing in the morning I picked up my cell phone and had a whole bunch of text messages saying ‘What’s going on?’ from all my friends.
“The hardest thing for me is the young athletes that were emailing me and texting me and saying ‘What does this mean?’”
Vierling says the decision doesn’t make sense from a sporting perspective.
“There’s 180 countries that have national wrestling federations around the world. It’s hugely participated in. It’s a sport for the masses. It’s not a very expensive sport to participate in,” he said. “It’s hugely popular around the world. I would like to see the rationalization for how this decision was really made.
“We’ve been one of the strongest sports. We had two medals this Olympics, two medals last Olympics, we’ve been in an Olympic gold-medal match the last six Olympics in a row. I don’t think there are many sports that can say that.”
Other sports vying for spots in the 2020 Games are baseball/softball, karate, squash, wushu (Kung Fu), roller sports, sport climbing and wakeboarding.
Baseball was dropped after the 2008 Games and is a long shot to be reinstated. Once dropped, it’s unlikely wrestling would be brought back right away.
Golf and rugby sevens were added in as “additional” sports to the 2016 Olympics.
Wrestling has the support of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
“While we understand that the Olympic Programme Commission systematically reviews every sport following each edition of the Games, we regret that wrestling may not be a member of the Olympic family in 2020,” COC president Marcel Aubut said in a statement. “It is disappointing to potentially lose this important sport from the Canadian Olympic team roster.
“Our country has a long tradition of excellence in this sport.”
An IOC statement said it reviews sports after each Games to “ensure the Olympic Games remain relevant to sports fans of all generations.”
Reports said the executive considered factors such as television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and the general popularity of each sport. They were given a report by the IOC program commission that analysed 39 criteria without making recommendations.
While wrestling doesn’t have much of a media presence in Canada, Ryan said that “for us (in wrestling), it’s like taking hockey out of the Olympics. I can’t envision wrestling not being in the Olympics.”
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports,” former Olympic champion Rulon Gardner of the U.S. told The Associated Press.
In London, 344 athletes competed in 11 medal events in freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman.
“It’s terrible, wow,” UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre said in a text to The Canadian Press. St-Pierre once considered taking time off from mixed martial arts to try qualifying for the Canadian wrestling team for the 2008 Games.
Verbeek won silver in 2004 in Athens, bronze in 2008 in Beijing and silver in London, while Huynh also won bronze at the 2012 Games.
The 25 core summer sports are track and field, rowing, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian, fencing, football, gymnastics, weightlifting, handball, field hockey, judo, swimming, modern pentathlon, taekwondo, tennis, table tennis, shooting, archery, triathlon, sailing and volleyball.
Modern pentathlon, which has been contested since 1912, was considered the most vulnerable sport but hard lobbying from its federation kept it in the Games. It includes fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting.
It benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president who is a federation vice-president and member of the IOC board.
“We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others,” Samaranch told the AP. “We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives.
“Tradition is one of our strongest assets, but we are also a multi-sport discipline that produces very complete people.”