Wrestling Keeps Hold On Olympics And Avoids Cut

Olympic wrestling fans have been anxious the last few months. The sport had been dropped from the games. Then the International Olympic Committee reversed course and decided to keep the sport as part of the summer Olympics. Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden speaks with NPR's Mike Pesca from Buenos Aires.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The ancient Olympic sport of wrestling will be the future Olympic sport of wrestling. Wrestling was the winner of a vote by members of the International Olympic Committee earlier today. It beat out squash and a combined bid by baseball and softball for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 games.

NPR's Mike Pesca has been covering the IOC meetings in Buenos Aires, and he joins us now. Hello there, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

LYDEN: So a big win, Mike, for wrestling. What was it that convinced the voting members of the IOC to give the sport another try?

PESCA: Well, the simple answer is passion and history and the massive levels of participation. But if you look at it a bit more subtly, the answer was actually contrition because you have to understand how wrestling even got to the point where it needed to be voted back in. And it was voted out by the executive board. And then wrestling had a choice. It could've said, how dare you? It could've said, what's the Olympics without wrestling? But they reorganized. They upended the leadership. They made a lot of changes.

And every time and in every action they expressed, we understand the message that you're giving us. We understand that we have to liven things up a little bit and reform a little bit. At one point during the question-and-answer session, a Lebanese delegate member of the IOC talked about how much he learned from wrestling. And the new president of FILA, the wrestling federation, turned that around and said, you have learned a lesson from wrestling. Now wrestling has learned a lesson from you.

And to the delegates of the IOC, that's exactly the kind of tone they wanted to hear, and that's why wrestling got 48 of the 93 votes that were cast.

LYDEN: Wow. So do you think that these were just changes in who runs the wrestling federation executive board, or were they changes we're going to see as fans?

PESCA: Well, they certainly were changes on the executive board, and that was, you know, a bit of a heavy lift to change the entrenched rulership. But yeah - no, we're going to see a fan tuning in to the next Olympics and going forward are going to see a little bit different look. The scoring is going to be a little bit easier to understand.

And here's a newsflash, maybe T-shirts and shorts, even changes as cosmetic as that, have been discussed.

LYDEN: You know, we talked about yesterday the sports of baseball and softball. What's going on with them?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, there's the baseball-softball, which was a combined bit. And also, squash was one of the games that were considered. And those are fine games. They were good, strong bids. And perhaps in other years, the Olympics would've said, yes, we want those bids in the Olympics. But what happened because of the bizarre events with wrestling, it was really tough to go against the sport with 3,000 years of history.

Also, if you just look at the levels of participation. You know, baseball claimed 35 million participants worldwide; squash, 20. But wrestling says it has 70 million participants. I think it's a bit of a disservice to squash and baseball and/or softball to just compare it to wrestling and say that it doesn't compare.

Perhaps if the entire process were a little bit different - and this is what some IOC members were saying to me. Perhaps if there were a way to send a message to wrestling to reform but then to hold a vote, which would be open to other sports, that would've been a bit more fair to other sports.

I mean, I looked at the squash bid. They talked about having the squash cube be portable and put in an excellent vista wherever you want it to do it. Only 64 new athletes would be involved in squash. Maybe what the Olympics needs to do - and this isn't just my thought, this is what a lot of members are saying - is instead of just tossing out a whole sport, look at what are called disciplines. So you don't toss out swimming, but maybe let's look at synchronized swimming, to pick an example that most American fans say, why is this in the Olympics?

And maybe that - if you need to cut, maybe the cut would come from a discipline like that in favor of a sport like squash. Just something to think about that they'll be considering as they elect a new president on Tuesday.

LYDEN: Well, thank you for a most definitive account. That's NPR's Mike Pesca in Buenos Aires with the latest news from the International Olympic Committee meetings there. Mike, thanks again.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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