In Losing Olympics' Oldest Sport, IOC Earns Criticism

Last week, the International Olympic Committee voted to lose the sport of wrestling from its games by 2020. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mike Pesca to delve into whether there was any logic to the IOC's decision.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to sports.

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MARTIN: Wrestling, a sport as old as man. The ancient athletic test though suffered a major blow this past week. The International Olympic Committee voted to drop it from the Olympic Games starting in 2020. The president of wrestling's world governing body resigned yesterday in response to the decision.

NPR's Mike Pesca spent the week delving into the IOC vote to see if it makes any sense. He joins U.S. now.

Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So, first off, the reaction of a lot of people, especially wrestling fans - I don't necessarily count myself among them.

PESCA: No.

MARTIN: But still, wrestling is a revered sport. How could they do this?

PESCA: It's odd that you would say that 'cause I've seen you expertly maneuver the cross face cradle into a pin. And yeah.

MARTIN: Ah, the cross face cradle, yeah.

PESCA: The cross face cradle, it's a good one. Yeah, it's odd because wrestling is not just one of the oldest sports, it's been contested in every Olympics except the 1900 Paris Games. And it's not only one of the most heavily participated-in sports throughout the world and throughout many countries in the world - so it's geographically diverse. You know, it obviously goes back to the ancient Olympics.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: In fact, the greatest Olympian of all time - you thought Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt was big - was Milo of Croton, who was a great wrestler in the sixth century. You know, and it's a fundamental sport. It's not one of these things where you have to say, wait, what's the rules and I don't get the nuances. I mean, four-year-olds get on a mat and they wrestle with each other and you teach them some maneuvers and it's unbelievably athletic. It's just such a shocking blow, not just to - I'm trying not to be jingoistic about this because it's a huge sport in America, it's a huge sport in many Midwestern states - it's just a shocking blow to Olympic fundamentalists, even those who don't count wrestling as a top 10 sport. They're saying, why, what's the Olympics without wrestling? It makes no sense.

MARTIN: So, what is the rationale? I mean, it doesn't make sense to me. You see synchronized swimming, you see rhythmic gymnastics - they get to stay but wrestling doesn't.

PESCA: Right. Well, a couple of things. The rationale: they have this 39-point criteria test, and the Associated Press released how they scored on some criteria. And the criteria seemed logical enough. They want sports with good TV ratings. Wrestling doesn't really get it. They want sports with good ticket sales. They said wrestling only sold out about 113 of 116,000 tickets available. I have to tell you: I was at the wrestling venue and I didn't see any empty seats. And for almost every sport, you would say, ay, what are you doing at table tennis? And someone would say, I would just take any sport available. I mean, people were eager to pick up tickets for anything.

So, I don't know where they got wrestling didn't sell out. All right, so they sold out 97 percent of its tickets. But that argument you made about synchronized swimming or the rhythmic gymnastics, otherwise known as the dance with a ribbon competition - you have to understand, those are the easy targets. But sports are approved by the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, so the sport is gymnastics or the sport is swimming. Within the federations for these sports, these swimming honchos say, all right, we're going to have all the swimming events - breaststroke, backstroke, and we're also going to have synchronized swimming. So, the federation sort of get to decide their disciplines. Now, the IOC can put some pressure on them and they can say do this, don't do that. But for - this was the number one complaint - why wrestling and why not weirdo sport X. Oftentimes, what we think of as weirdo sport X is a discipline, not an actual sport, until you come to the modern pentathlon, which is a little bit of running, a little bit of shooting, and it's a very odd sport. And that survived, and there's a lot of - well, one of the people who voted on the survival of sports is on the modern pentathlon board, plus the inventor of the Olympics invented the modern pentathlon. So there's a lot of nostalgia involved with the modern pentathlon.

MARTIN: OK. Do you have a curveball this week?

PESCA: I do have a curveball. And let me just say one for the rest - there's one other vote and they might be able to get wrestling back. They have to go up against sports like karate, climbing and wushu. I can't really get into what wushu is, but it's a martial art.

MARTIN: OK. So, it's not a done deal yet. There's still a chance.

PESCA: Not necessarily done. But I do have my curveball. Are you ready?

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm ready. Of course, I'm ready.

PESCA: It's the NBA All-Star weekend and the NBA All-Star game is today, which is a collection of the greatest players. And so you would think the greatest players, by definition, would help their teams win a lot, would you not?

MARTIN: I would think so.

PESCA: But there are some advanced statistics, including one that I think is very good and very clever, which says how does a team do when a player is on the court and how does a team do when a player is off the court? And it turns out that there are three guys who have been elected or selected as all-stars - although one of them is hurt - who actually hurt their teams when they play more than they help their teams. James Harden of the Rockets. He scores so much but he also has a high usage percentage, which means he misses a lot of shots; Rajon Rondo, same kind of player with the Celtics, although he's hurt; and Luol Deng, which confused me, since he's a great defense player. These three guys have statistics that indicate their teams are little worse off offensively and defensively when they're on the court. But they're still all-stars.

MARTIN: You're an all-star. NPR's Mike Pesca...

PESCA: Thank you. Thank you for the smash mouth reference, I think.

MARTIN: Of course, anytime. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: Bye.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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