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Wrestler Sushil Kumar has called for divine intervention. “I have made a strong appeal to Hanumanji and I am sure he won’t let me down,” said the two-time Olympic medallist in wrestling after the International Olympic Committee announced that it proposed to drop wrestling from the Olympic programme. Kumar’s coach Satpal Singh, however, is more pragmatic and says that the decision has to be revoked by proper lobbying. “They can’t do this. This is one sport where by 2020 we are looking at trippling our medal count (from two in the London Games).” Singh, Kumar and almost everyone associated with wrestling are still grappling with IOC’s call.
So why did wrestling get the boot?
The IOC, in its official statement, has cited a number of reasons including TV viewership, global popularity, anti-doping policy, and so on. It has also said that it was looking at including only such sports in the Olympics which “appeal to all generations of sports fans”. Granted, wrestling isn’t a TV-friendly sport like, say, boxing or even track and field events, but the numbers would suggest that it doesn’t do too badly. In 2102, according to TAM data, over 100 million people watched the Olympics in India and TV ratings ranged between 4.5 and 6 for the wrestling matches that had the potential to bring in medals. India won two medals in wrestling in 2012 — Kumar got a silver in the 66 kg category and Yogeshwar Dutt bagged a bronze in 60 kg. India’s first ever individual medal at the Olympics also came in wrestling when K D Jadhav won a bronze at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
As for the argument about popularity, wrestling is an ancient sport and has been a fixture at the Olympics since the first games were held in 1896 at Athens. Wrestlers from 71 countries participated in the London Olympics last year, and 29 countries won medals (men and women) in the sport. About 180 countries have their own wrestling federation. After track and field, it is the event that sees the most participation in modern Olympics. So IOC’s global participation reasoning is a bit flawed, as even Singh agrees. “Countries like Iran, Korea and Japan have taken up wrestling in a big way and it is a global sport,” he points out.
There is another school of thought which believes that the decision was motivated by politics and vested interests. One sport which it was rumoured would go down from Olympics was modern pentathlon — a combination of running, shooting, swimming, horse-riding and cycling. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, one of the board members of the IOC committee, is also vice-president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union. Also the IOC committee is dominated by European countries — nine of its 15 members are from the continent and there is not a single American or Russian. Both the United States and Russia have dominated the medals tally in wrestling with 124 and 116 medals, respectively, in Olympics’ wrestling history.
Look at the medals’ chart for wrestling in the last five Olympics and it is clear that there has been a shift in the balance of power to Asia and Eastern Europe. (Women’s wrestling became a part of the Olympics in 2004, so this contention is only relevant for the men’s event.)
Since 1996, Asian countries — Japan, Iran and Kazakhstan mainly — have won the maximum number of medals in men’s wrestling events: a total of 38. The US, too, has seen a decline in the number of medals in wrestling. In Athens 2004, the country won only three medals in wrestling. Four years later in Beijing, the number came down to just one, though in London it again won three medals.
Compare this with Asian countries which together won seven medals in Athens, six in Beijing and eight in London. Iran alone has won nine medals in the past three games, while Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have won 11 medals between them in the last five Olympics. India has won three medals since Sushil Kumar stepped on the podium in Beijing.
For European nations, on the other hand, most of the medals were picked up by those from the east — former Communist Bloc states of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Eastern European countries have a tally of 35 Olympic medals since the 1996 Atlanta games, while Russia has won 22 wrestling medals . Nations in the western part of the continent, in contrast, haven’t won a single medal since the 1996 Atalanta Olympics, where a German wrestler won a bronze.
It is evident that the sport of wrestling isn’t as popular in Western Europe as it is in other parts of the world — which is, perhaps, what IOC was hinting at. But in Asia, its popularity has been on the steady rise. “I am working with a lot of wrestlers in the 15-16 age group to get them ready for the 2020 Olympics. This decision has come as a bitter blow to all of us,” Singh rues, speaking on the phone from his training academy at Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi.
Raj Singh, general secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India, feels disappointed that the decision was taken through a secret ballot. “It’s no secret that Europe has never been in favour of wrestling. In fact, I am sure that if an Eastern European nation bags the rights to host the 2020 Olympics, it will certainly not drop wrestling,” he says.
Is this the end of the road, then, for wrestling?
Very few sports have recovered from being dropped from the preliminary list of Olympic games. Baseball and softball were taken off in 2005 and are still struggling to make it back in the Olympic programme. There’s a good reason why baseball was eliminated — it was a sport played mainly in North America and couldn’t be termed a “global” sport.
Wrestling will grapple with seven other sports — baseball and softball, which will make a combined bid, besides karate, squash, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboarding and martial art sport wushu — for just one spot on the Olympics 2020 programme. Apart from squash, no other sport in the above list matches wrestling’s appeal, popularity or TV ratings — the criteria invoked by the IOC committee to exclude the sport from the Olympics.
The IOC executive board will meet in May to decide which sport/s to propose for inclusion in 2020 for a final vote by the IOC general assembly in September 2013. IOC president Jacques Rogge has said that this is not the end of the road for wrestling. But those like Satpal Singh fear the worst. “These are decisions motivated by politics, not sports. I am not sure what will happen in the future. All we can do is hope.” That is a sentiment shared by the entire wrestling fraternity and fans of the sport worldwide.