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.

Wrestling’s biggest fight: Getting back in the Games

Modern pentathlon seemed to be the likeliest sport to be eliminated from the Olympic program. Then perhaps taekwondo. Maybe an outside chance of one of the Asian-dominated net sports, badminton and table tennis.

Wrestling? If you saw that coming, consider taking your psychic talents to Wall Street or Vegas.

“A surprise decision,” says the AP. “A shocking move,” says Yahoo’s Maggie Hendricks.

But is it a final decision? Maybe not.

AP puts it like this:

Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. They will be vying for a single opening in 2020.

The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It is extremely unlikely that wrestling would be voted back in so soon after being removed by the executive board.

If the federation facing the axe was the tiny modern pentathlon federation or the dysfunctional taekwondo federation, then yes, getting back in the Games would be nearly impossible.

But wrestling’s federation, FILA? Don’t be too sure. To mangle John Paul Jones’ famous quote, FILA has not yet begun to lobby.

And the international outcry is sure to be monstrous. Have you ever wanted to see the USA and Iran join forces? Get ready, ’cause here it comes.

The facts are on wrestling’s side. The last time the IOC went through this process, they released their report on each sport. A few numbers for consideration (from 2009, but it’s hard to imagine too much has changed since then):

  • Wrestling has 167 active national federations. Other sports: Archery 139, equestrian 133, field hockey 122, triathlon 116, modern pentathlon 104. (Taekwondo, surprisingly, has a healthy 186.)
  • The “average minute of TV coverage” of wrestling in the 2008 Olympics was watched by 29.5 million people globally. Field hockey: 11.8 million. Fencing: 24.3 million. Badminton: 21.2 million. Team handball: 23.3 million. Sailing: 24.5 million. Triathlon: 19.4 million. Modern pentathlon: 23.1 million. Even tennis was lower: 26.1 million. (Swimming, gymnastics, weightlifting (?!) and track and field are the big draws, as you’d expect — 40 million to 65 million. Table tennis was also over 40 million, so the people complaining about “ping pong” might want to adjust their arguments.)

Now wrestling is battling for a spot against the combined baseball/softball bid, karate, squash, roller sports (speed skating), sport climbing, wakeboarding (a modified version that will confuse the heck out of U.S. viewers) and wushu. That’s a battle wrestlers should be able to win.

Then the other sports can get back in line and hope the IOC comes to its senses next time and reverses its ludicrous decision to add golf, where the costs far outweigh the benefits. Perhaps other federations can merge, as baseball and softball are doing, to try to sneak another sport into the Games.

So take heart, wrestlers. There’s a lot of time left on the clock.

 

Midweek Myriad: Marta, Nadal, handball, 1260s, etc.

One of the joys of following a hundred sports or so is that you’re not stuck dissecting the Super Bowl to the point that it becomes joyless. Instead, we have all this:

Marta signs with Western New York. A WPS shocker. Good news from a media point of view because it means more of us will be paying attention to veteran Rochester reporter Jeff DiVeronica, who jokes on Twitter that Marta will push him up to 1,000 followers.

The conventional wisdom would be that Marta would sign with The Club Formerly And Still Partially Known As The Washington Freedom But Also With Magic Jack In The Name (TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN) so that Dan Borislow would have a marquee player to market in South Florida and perhaps somewhere in Washington once the team hires marketing and sales staffs and finds venues in which to play. Instead, Borislow has given us the best WPS smack talk in the league’s brief history, via Our Game: “This came as a total surprise. I am glad she will be playing in the league. She will discover we are the team to beat, so I hope she is at the top of her game when she plays us.”

For all the talk in MLS about “Rivalry Week,” maybe we should be circling the calendar for TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN’s visit to Rochester.

Nadal loses. And it’s a pity. Tennis could use a Grand Slam charge from the charismatic, humble Spaniard, but an injury has derailed his Australian Open campaign. Nadal didn’t want to use the injury as an excuse, but he wasn’t fooling opponent David Ferrer. Class acts all around. (NYT)

– Winter X Games time. And the NYT notes that several more X sports may be joining the Winter Olympic program. No word on women’s ski jumping, though that sport has a better-defined set of rules and so forth.

The Summer Olympics might be too big. The Winter Olympics aren’t, and it’s hard to begrudge slopestyle its place. But if the IOC adds the X sports without women’s ski jumping, the excuses will ring hollow.

Handball heaven. It’s only $20 away. At least the highlights are free, so I was able to scout semifinalist France in their win over my buddies from Iceland in a rematch of the 2008 Olympic final. (Dan Steinberg also enjoyed covering that team in Beijing and linked to my highest-read blog post ever.)

Iceland plays Croatia for fifth place on Friday. The semifinals the same day: France-Sweden, Denmark-Spain.

Also this weekend:

  • Cyclocross World Championships. The muddier, the better.
  • U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in my former hometown of Greensboro.
  • Luge World Championships. U.S. sliders not having a particularly good year.
  • Paralympic Athletics World Championships.
  • Millrose Games.
  • Strikeforce: Middleweight and welterweight title fights, plus Herschel Walker.
  • Final weekend of Tata Steel chess classic, where U.S. player Hikaru Nakamura shares the lead in an elite group.