How modern pentathlon stayed in the Olympics (attn wrestling)

In elementary school, I used to wander into the Coliseum at the University of Georgia to watch wrestling. When UGA cut the varsity wrestling program, I drafted a complaint letter and had my classmates sign it. That letter was reprinted in a local weekly. (In retrospect, that may have been my first published work.)

In 2008, I covered a little bit of wrestling and a little bit of modern pentathlon. In 2012, I watched a bit of wrestling and a bit of modern pentathlon online.

Guess which I enjoyed more? No, not the wrestling.

College wrestling, when I get a chance to watch it, isn’t bad. International wrestling is one of the most befuddling sports to watch in the Olympics, and I say that as someone who has watched a live trampoline competition.

Modern pentathlon, on the other hand, has modernized. The shooting and running phases have been combined to resemble biathlon, a popular winter sport in Europe. The athletes are shooting laser pistols. In London, they ran through a cross-country course in Greenwich Park. If you didn’t see it, it’s your loss.

How did modern pentathlon realize all of these changes would be a good idea? They communicated with the IOC. Maybe cynics would say it takes more than communication to get the wheels moving, but the fact is simple: Modern pentathlon responded to IOC concerns, and wrestling didn’t. That’s the lesson of a USA TODAY story by my former Olympic press center office-mate Bryce Miller, who is leading a comprehensive look at wrestling’s Olympic fight at The Des Moines Register.

If anything, wrestling got worse over the years. It was already a sport that turned on arcania, particularly the Greco-Roman competition. Remember the highlight of Rulon Gardner’s monumental upset over Russian giant Alexander Karelin? The final score of that contest: 1-0. Gardner was awarded his point when Karelin’s hands broke apart on a clinch. That’s it.

Now we have “ball draws” and foam blocks. Defense still rules.

In a conference call earlier this year, I asked whether wrestling might consider drastic changes such as replacing Greco-Roman with grappling. I didn’t hear much enthusiasm for that idea.

The lobbying effort that quickly sprang to life, with the USA taking the lead but forging solid relationships with Iran and other countries, has made vague references to tinkering with the rules:

The objectives of this committee include these key points: 1) simple for spectators; 2) increases action 3) rewards risk-taking; 4) allows no bias into officiating; 5) allows the best athlete to win; 6) is exciting for television viewing.

An Iran Times piece* put it this way:

(A)nother goal is to try to make officiating more “scientific” and less subjective.  There have been many complaints from both within and without wrestling that a move will get a wrestler points from one official and punishment from another.

The IOC’s voters might be seeing the backlash from the recommendation to drop wrestling. But they’re too proud to save face and change their minds. A few changes might be enough to let them claim that they’re keeping wrestling in the Games because wrestling met their demands. For better or for worse, that’s how the Games game is played.

* The original link is here, but I can’t get it to load.

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One thought on “How modern pentathlon stayed in the Olympics (attn wrestling)

  1. First a confession. If I’d been choosing a sport to leave out I’d have picked wrestling as well. I appreciate the sports history, and it’s probably great to compete in, but it just isn’t a great spectator sport. It certainly compares poorly with the other olympic combat sports in that regard. It was notable in London that while athletics, football and hockey attracted the biggest ticket sales, wrestling was the hardest sell.

    You’re right about modern pentathlon’s greater adaptability. Apart from the changes you mentioned, in 2000 they reduced the event from five days to one which made it much more appealing both to spectators and the IOC. Another of the sports which was perceived as vulnerable was taekwondo which also demonstrated adaptability by introducing lights on the fighters helmets to indicate scores and a quick and effective referral system when requested by the competitors after the controversies of Beijing.

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