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D-Day for the Save Olympic Wrestling Movement Arrives

Step 1 of the process to return wrestling to the Olympics arrives today.

Matthew Stockman

Actually, that headline is slightly misleading. Today is more like D-Day, Part I. Success today will not guarantee the return of wrestling to the Olympics. On the other hand, failure today will guarantee that wrestling is not included in the 2020 Olympics and could place its overall future in greater doubt. So what's so important about today?

Today is the day that wrestling (and the seven other sports hoping to make the roster of Olympic sports, including squash, karate, baseball/softball, sport climbing, roller sports, wushu, and wakeboarding) presents its case to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board in St. Petersburg, Russia at the 2013 SportAccord Convention. The goal today is to be included on the shortlist of sports recommended for inclusion in the Olympic Games by the IOC Executive Board. The IOC General Assembly will then vote from among those shortlisted sports to determine which sport will get the final spot in the Olympics. That vote will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September. That vote is the key vote in determining whether or not wrestling will be included in the 2020 Olympics, but obviously wrestling needs to succeed today -- and get on the shortlist -- in order to have a shot at winning that final spot in September.

The good news is that wrestling's chances of making the shortlist seem pretty good, based on the early indicators. Wrestling won a poll on that asked which sport the public thought the IOC should include in the 2020 Olympics. Wrestling took home 42.2% of the vote, or 135,067 out of 319,944 total votes cast, suggesting that there is solid public support for wrestling's return to the Olympics (or at least suggesting that wrestling is good at mobilizing its constituency to vote in online polls).

Wrestling also received a vote of confidence from IOC President Jacques Rogge, who praised the sport's overseers for the steps they had taken since the shocking decision was made to remove wrestling from the 2020 Olympics.

Rogge said FILA, the international wrestling federation, has dealt with the issues that led the IOC executive board in February to recommend that wrestling be removed from the list of core sports for the 2020 Games. "I think they had the good answer and the good reaction," said Rogge. He continued, saying "the federation definitely understood the reasons why they were ousted, and they reacted what they normally should have done. They did a good job on that, so we'll see what the judgment is of the executive board on all of the eight sports but definitely I would say that wrestling has reacted well."

Rogge is a controversial and oft-criticized figure (usually deservedly so), but he's also a very powerful figure and having his backing can only be a positive for wrestling's push to get back into the Olympics.

And about those changes that FILA (the international governing body of wrestling) made...

* They voted in a new president, Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who replaced former president Raphael Martinetti (HELPFUL HINT: If the Olympics is the pinnacle of your sport and you lose your presence in the Olympics while the sport is under your watch... you're gonna lose your job.)

* They mandated that at least one woman will become FILA Vice President and that women will have a say on the FILA Executive Board; they also created an athletes' commission to give the athletes themselves an increased say in the administration of the sport.

* They also changed the structure of the matches themselves. Instead of a format where the wrestler who wins two out of three periods prevails, the scoring will now be cumulative and include all scoring moves from the entire match. For instance, under the prior system, a wrestler could win a match by losing the first period 0-5 and then winning the next two periods 1-0 (0-5, 1-0, 1-0). Under the new rules, that wrestler would lose 5-2, which seems like a much better result overall. The old format was confusing, dumb, and encouraged less aggressive (i.e., boring) styles of wrestling.

* The periods themselves are also different now: instead of three two-minute periods, the matches will consist of two three-minute periods. The overall time of the match remains the same (six minutes), but this is still a significant change because it allows conditioning to play a bigger role in matches and provides an advantage to better-conditioned athletes (which should be a plus for American wrestlers in general, since we tend to be better-conditioned but a bit less technically skilled than many of our international challengers). Instead of getting two breaks during a match, now wrestlers will only get one. Adding another minutes onto the length of periods in order to make them three minutes may not seem all that significant, but an extra minute can be quite long in a sport as physically (and mentally) taxing as wrestling.

* The scoring has also been tweaked. Takedowns are now worth two points rather than one point, a long-overdue change that should further incentivize wrestlers to go for takedowns. It's also easier to get a technical fall now; in freestyle it will be a win by 10 or more points, while in Greco-Roman it will be a win by 7 or more points.

* The ball-grab, that widely derided (rightly so) means of breaking a tie, has also been abolished. Thank God.

* There are also new rules regarding "passivity," (aka, stalling), but I think I'll just let this article describe them for you:

In freestyle, the first passivity call will be awarded with a verbal warning. In the second instance of a passivity call, a 30-second clock will begin. If no athlete scores in that 30 seconds, a caution and a point will be awarded to the opponent of the passive athlete. In addition, if no athlete scores in the first two minutes of a period, referees must select one of the wrestlers as passive. In this situation, the passive wrestler must score within 30 seconds or the opponent receives a point.

In Greco-Roman, the process for enforcing passivity was different. The first violation is a warning. The second results in a caution, with the opponent able to choose either par terre or a standing position. The third violation results in a point to the opponent. On the fourth passivity, the bout is terminated and the active wrestler is awarded a victory by fall.

The good news about this change is that it's meant to reduce stalling and increase attacking (and scoring), which would be very welcome. The bad news is that it does rely on the referee's discretion and, as we well know, referees can be very, very fallible. Still, it's definitely a big step forward overall.

The changes were implemented immediately and the results have been uniformly positive. Freestyle matches have featured more offense and been more exciting to watch. The Beat the Streets event in New York City a few weeks ago, featuring a U.S. team taking on Iran and Russia in separate dual meets was a solid success, as was a subsequent dual event in California. The University Nationals were a veritable cornucopia of points. The results suggest that the changes are having the desired effect: altering the sport to make it more exciting and easier for audiences to comprehend (fans understandably had a great deal of confusion about the fact that under the old rules a wrestler could score more points than his opponent in a freestyle match and still lose).

These are big pluses for a sport that was thrown for a loop a few months ago when the IOC Executive Board recommended that wrestling be removed from the Olympic program. Additional changes were discussed (such as replacing the traditional wrestling singlet with different attire; fight shorts and rash guards for men and two-piece, track uniform-like gear for women) but not yet implemented. Additional changes may yet still be required in order to give wrestling a better shot of returning to the Olympic program; increased gender equality is a must, as noted by InterMat writer T.R. Foley (who also champions the removal of the Greco-Roman discipline entirely, which would be a bold and controversial move... but also probably the correct one).

Wrestling's survival is far from guaranteed, but these changes at least show that it has made some promising steps forward. The first big referendum on those changes will come at today's vote by the IOC Executive Board; it's imperative that they include wrestling on the shortlist of sports to be voted on at the IOC General Assembly in September. Based on the changes that have already been implemented and the positive reaction to them (from fans, competitors, administrators, and the media) I think wrestling is in good shape to make the cut, but nothing is certain. Hell, I didn't think wrestling would get removed from the Olympics back in April, either.

The harsh reality is that that decision, as shocking and painful and damaging as it was for wrestling, may also have been exactly the kick in the pants that the sport needed to make some long overdue changes. It's very clear that wrestling's overseers didn't see the need to make changes to their spot, assuming that wrestling, one of the oldest and most traditional Olympic sports, would always have a spot in the games. We can debate whether or not that should be the case, but the removal of wrestling from the Olympic program has forced the sport into some much-needed changes. Both freestyle and Greco-Roman had increasingly evolved into sports that were increasingly incomprehensible (and uninteresting) to all but the most hardcore fans. Change was badly needed and change has arrived -- now let's hope it's enough to enable wrestling to clear the first hurdle on their quest to get back into the Olympics.

The IOC Executive Board's shortlist is expected to be announced around 8:30 PM Moscow time, which is 11:30 AM Central time, if my calculations are correct. So we'll know soon if wrestling's efforts to change itself have been sufficient. Fingers crossed.