WASHINGTON — Wrestling's fight to get back into the Olympics is as much about politics as sports. It's about saying the right things in public while lobbying behind-the-scenes for crucial votes. It's about knowing how to schmooze with the right people.
"This is all about international sport politics," said former world champion Bill Scherr, chairman of the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling. "And some of it very well-intentioned, very well-meaning. And sometimes they make mistakes — as in this case."
It was only appropriate, therefore, that the cause made its way to the nation's capital on Thursday, at the Ronald Reagan Building between the Capitol and White House, where Olympic champions Rulon Gardner and Henry Cejudo joined Scherr and others to make their pitch at an event that celebrated the sport's place on the world scene.
"Everything's politicized," said Gardner, a 2000 gold medalist in Greco-Roman. "And wrestlers, we didn't go a good enough job of going in and saying, 'Thank you, IOC, we appreciate you letting us in the Olympics.'"
The International Olympic Committee's executive board gave wrestling the boot in February, starting with the 2020 Games, but the sport can work its way back in by beating out seven other sports vying for one available spot on the summer schedule. The other candidates are sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, karate, wushu, roller sports and a combined baseball-softball bid. All will make their presentations before the 15-member IOC board at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 29-31.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," Scherr said. "I think it's an uphill battle, given the fact we're fighting against a process and a procedure as much as a reality."
Wrestling's exclusion came as a shock to many within the sport, especially given its long Olympic legacy, but Scherr said the vote showed that wrestling needed to change its ways. It became clear that the sport's world governing body, FILA, needed new leadership, needed to be more open and democratic, and needed to include more athletes and women. It needed to do a better job embracing new media. It needed to make the sport more presentable to the average sports fan, which meant tinkering with the rules.
Some of those changes are already underway. Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president, and more changes will be put to a vote at a FILA meeting in Moscow on May 18.
Gardner hopes it will be enough. He said some within FILA are resistant to change, and that "they're going to go off the cliff unless they change."
"Even after the potential death sentence to the sport, there's still people that don't see the bigger picture," Gardner said. "We need to go in, hold hands with the Russians, hold hands with the Iranians, hold hands with whoever it is and make friends."
There's been plenty of public outrage over wrestling's plight. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a former wrestler, attended Thursday's event and has introduced a resolution in the House to urge the IOC to reinstate the sport. In Russia, a wrestling powerhouse, President Vladimir Putin has been particularly vocal, vowing to do what he can to change the IOC's mind.
But Scherr said too much indignant talk from politicians can backfire.
"We constantly give that message to lawmakers across the globe: 'Calm down, guys. You don't govern the IOC. And you wouldn't want them to come in and tell you where to locate your next air force base, so I don't want you to come in and tell them what sport to put on the Olympic program,'" Scherr said.
"They do not respond to external pressure. We want to work within the process."
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