Turks Desire 'Reversal' In Olympic Wrestling Move

The International Olympic Committee's unexpected move to eliminate wrestling as of the 2020 games was a particular shock to Turkey. Turks love the ancient sport, and two-thirds of Turkey's Olympic medals are in wrestling.

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This week's news that the International Olympic Committee has decided to drop wrestling from the list of core Olympic sporting events has caused acute pain in Turkey. Wrestling is revered there as an ancestral sport.

In this letter from Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon tells us that Turks plan to take the IOC decision to the mat.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Turks don't claim either to have invented wrestling or to be the best in the world at it. They do love it though, and closely followed the matches at the London Games last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And in the gold medal bouts, we have Ramazan Sahin of Turkey, the world's number one, against Andre Studnik of Ukraine in blue.

And it's the Turkish fighter getting the upper hand early.

KENYON: The ancient Greeks considered wrestling a divine art and practiced it widely, although modern wrestlers are no doubt relieved that outside of certain disreputable bars it is no longer contested by naked combatants covered in oil.

Before the Greeks, wrestling crops up in ancient Egypt. And if you check your cuneiform tablets, you'll find it mentioned in "Gilgamesh," the epic poem from Mesopotamia, one of the longest-surviving literary works in existence.

Wrestling was featured in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. And except for the 1900 Games, it's been an Olympic sport ever since.

At a sprawling sports compound up the Bosphorus, former European champion wrestler Hakki Basar contemplates the future. He now coaches the Turkish men's national team, and he refuses to believe this week's decision is the final verdict.

HAKKI BASAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: For us, wrestling is an ancestral sport, he says; it's part of our love of country. This is frightening, he adds, saying: I have a son and I want him to grow up to compete in the Olympics.

Before you conclude that this is another display of Turkish machismo, consider this: In 2010, the online news outlet E Women's News reported on the Turkish women's wrestling team, competing since 1998. Wrestler Sumeyye Sezer said she endures harsh conditions and paternalistic criticism because for her wrestling is more than a personal test of skill. She's heard through an interpreter.

SUMEYYE SEZER: (Through translator) When I wrestle, I'm always thinking of the Turkish people who support me. That motivates me. Before I step onto a wrestling mat, I always pray to God. I believe I can do something that will make Turkey proud.

KENYON: The IOC is frequently accused of playing politics with the Olympics and this decision is no exception. Some sportswriters suggest that dropping wrestling would be a bitter blow for two of the three cities bidding to host the 2020 games, Istanbul and Tokyo, which has a very strong women's team. The presumed beneficiary: Madrid, which has closer ties to the modern pentathlon, which was thought to be on the chopping block but survived.

Turkey's complaints are being echoed in the U.S. and in a swath of wrestling-loving countries like Iran, Ukraine, and of course the modern day wrestling powerhouse, Russia.

Turkish wrestler Selcuk Cebi, a two-time world champion, says he hopes world leaders will rally to save the sport, because he doesn't think wrestling has much of a future without the Olympics.

SELCUK CEBI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: First, this decision would make the 2016 games in Rio incredibly important for all wrestlers, he says. Personally, he adds, I think if wrestling is out of the Olympics after that, the sport will be finished.

Amid rising criticism, the IOC president has agreed to meet with the head of wrestling's governing body to see if the sport can remain a part of the games.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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