Wrestling with the truth
Last week, the International Olympic Committee secretly voted to remove wrestling from the list of 25 “core” Olympic sports. The decision ends 117 years of wrestling at the modern Olympics, and was met with outrage by the international wrestling community. Wrestling experts the world over have cited the rich history of the sport, primarily its place in the early Olympic Games in ancient Greece, as the main argument to keep the sport around.
Wrestling is one of the most effective and refined combative sports ever devised, and it will forever remain one of the most crucial tools in a martial artist’s arsenal. There is no doubt that the Olympic Games are largely responsible for the evolution and refinement of the sport over the last hundred years. The Games created the ultimate prize that every sport needs to build a following and a grassroots base. Dreams of making it to the Olympics are what motivate athletes to be the best in the world, and ultimately grow their respective sports in the process. For wrestling, that’s over now.
However, what I just said about wrestling could be said about any sport on the “core” roster – most Olympic sports need the Games just as much as wrestling does.
It might be a hard pill for many North American’s to swallow, but the IOC made a pretty rational decision when they kicked wrestling out the door. Sure, there were other sports like the pentathlon that had their heads on the chopping block as well, but based on the IOC’s criteria wrestling deserved the guillotine.
Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling ranks close to the bottom in several important categories judged by the IOC Programme Committee – including worldwide popularity, television viewers, ticket sales, and anti-doping programs.
The outrage from the wrestling and mixed martial arts communities around North America has been understandable considering the IOC’s horrible record of providing a clear rationale for their decisions. The vote to remove wrestling from the Games was held in private, and the IOC Programme Committee’s reports are usually explained to the media using vague language – not to mention the reports are a nightmare to read. The IOC report doesn’t rank the individual sports, meaning that IOC board members had to sift through the entire 235-page report before casting their vote; who thinks they actually did it? It might be a pain in the ass to deal with, but traditionally the IOC Programme Committee Report is entirely accurate.
While this year’s report is yet to be published, the previous IOC report does provide some insight into what this year’s edition might have looked like.
According to the last report, wrestling averaged 29.5 million viewers during competition. That might seem like a healthy number, but they become uninspiring when compared with archery’s 40.1 million, table tennis’ 40.4 million, and athletics’ 65.2 million. Even canoeing received several million more viewers than wrestling.
Wrestling also accounted for a meager 1.1 per cent of ticket sales, well below the averages of sports with comparative TV audiences. In addition, wrestling events gathered a weak following online.
The sport’s international doping strategy was also ranked low. On average, there were twice as many reports of anti-doping rule violations in wrestling than athletics, rowing, volleyball, and triathlons just to name a few.
If this year’s IOC report looks anything like the last one, it is pretty clear that wrestling is not as popular on the world stage as many North Americans would like to believe. It might be hard to watch sports like table tennis and archery keep their Olympic status while wrestling is kicked to the curb, but the fact of the matter is that table tennis and archery are more popular on an international level.
Yes wrestling does have a decorated history, and it played a pivotal role in some of the earliest athletic competitions, but we have reached a point where that is the only value wrestling brings to the Olympic community. Is it really that hard to believe that the IOC voted to remove a sport that was a lousy draw, with a less-than-commendable anti-doping record?
We have to admit that the popularity of wrestling is based in North America and a select few Asian countries, not worldwide. It might seem shocking on our side of the planet, but no one outside of a handful of nations is making any noise about the IOC’s decision. It is time that we realize why.
Photo by Arthur Ward