BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Wrestling stayed alive.
“This is the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport,” International Wrestling Federation President Nenad Lalovic of Serbia said. “Remaining on the Olympic program is crucial to wrestling’s survival.”
But baseball/softball and squash, the two bidders wrestling soundly defeated Sunday to claim the one open spot on the 2020 and 2024 Summer Games program, may not be dead yet.
One or both could be included in the 2020 Olympics, awarded Saturday to Tokyo. There already are proposals to cut events from some sports on the Summer Games program, reducing the number of athletes – capped at 10,500 – and making room for a new sport.
“There are all kinds of events that are irrelevant,” said International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound of Canada, citing race walking as an example.
Pound vainly tried to have the IOC postpone Sunday’s vote, analyze what trimming could be done and wait until its next general meeting – five months away – to define the 2020 program.
“Baseball/softball for Tokyo would be nothing because they have the facilities,” Pound said. “Squash basically costs nothing. You could have both if you wanted, but you have to act quickly.”
Squash would seem to have the better chance, since it proposes just 64 athletes at the Olympics. Baseball/softball would have 296.
The refusal of Major League Baseball to guarantee its top players would compete at the Olympics remains a deal-killer in the minds of many IOC members. While baseball and softball are popular in Japan, host cities after 2020 may be loath to include them.
To Pound, Sunday’s decisions were meaningless because they did not address the issue of keeping the Olympic program dynamic, a stated goal of the program review that led to expensive campaigns by all three bidding sports.
“Here we have the same old program, and the whole point of the exercise was moot,” he said.
Wrestling saved its place by making a solid case for its modernity despite being a core sport of the ancient Olympics.
It took just one round of IOC voting for wrestling to get the needed majority, with 49 votes to 24 for baseball/softball and 22 for squash.
Wrestling’s Olympic future had been in jeopardy since the IOC executive board recommended in February it be dropped from the 25 “core sports” in the Summer Games. That forced wrestling to make radical changes to address concerns underlying the executive board decision.
With the new rules, which reward aggressiveness, “things will be decided on the mat instead of by referees,” said Alexander Karelin of Russia, a three-time Olympic Greco-Roman champion.
Among the changes were adding two women’s freestyle weight classes to wrestling’s Olympic events and cutting one each in men’s freestyle and men’s-only Greco-Roman. Come 2016, there will be six of each.
Jim Scherr, a 1988 Olympic wrestler and former U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive officer, said wrestling’s continued presence is “critically important to interest and participation at the grass-roots level.”
“There is a symbiotic relationship between international and collegiate programs,” he said. “Each would be significantly weakened without the other. At the collegiate level, because of economic pressures, it’s a sport potentially at risk.”
Keeping wrestling is among the rare battles in which the U.S., Russia and Iran were on the same side.
Baseball had been in the Olympics from 1992 through 2008, softball from 1996 through 2008. Both were voted off the program in 2005, with softball losing its place by one vote.
Each made a failed independent effort to return before following bad advice from some IOC members that they had a better chance with a joint bid. Their merged international federation was approved Sunday, making it impossible in the foreseeable future for softball to rid itself of the baseball albatross.
“I’m not sure this is the end (for baseball and softball),” said Don Porter, president of the former International Softball Federation, who has spent half his 82 years making softball’s case as an Olympic sport. Porter intimated Sunday it may soon be the end of his involvement.
“We knew we had an uphill battle,” Porter said. “It was inevitable wrestling would get back.”