Wrestling with Olympic shadows

Stadio Olimpico Wrestling
Friday, 05 April 2013

The news travelled fast around the globe. The Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee voted by secret ballot not to include wrestling in its core Olympic programme, starting in 2020 Olympics. Dr Dikaia Chatziefstathiou and Dr Evangelos Albanidis discuss the issues that have plauged wrestling in past decades.

Shock, anger and frustration were expressed from fans, officials and keen followers of the Olympic history; a history that the athletes of wrestling continue to embody today. Notwithstanding wrestling’s value in ancient and modern times and the symbolisms that it carries for the continuity of the Olympic movement, wrestling may not have an Olympic future. Several articles in press featured the facts: 180 countries wrestle; wrestlers from 71 countries went to London last summer and 29 of those countries won a medal; the TV global audience for wrestling averages 23 million viewers; wrestling is the sport which has been included in every Games except one since the modern Olympics were reintroduced in 1896. ‘WHY then wrestling was voted off’? 

Critiques first focused on issues of politics and raised concerns for lack of transparency and account-‘ability’ of the IOC. Conflicted interests were highlighted. How could the Head of the 2020 Evaluation Committee, Sir Craig Reedie, a former doubles badminton champion and a keen supporter of his sport’s entry into the Olympics two decades ago not have supported badminton?  How could Jim Easton, IOC member and CEO of the leading archery equipment company, not have supported archery? How could Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, son of one of the (if not ‘the’) most controversial IOC President to date and Vice President of the Modern Pentathlon federation not have supported Modern Pentathlon? Also, Modern Pentathlon is the creation of the founder of the Modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin to which, as he said in his Olympic Memoirs, “attached great importance: a veritable consecration of the complete athlete”. Also it would have been difficult to axe Coubertin’s modern pentathlon especially this year, as January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Games. As Jacques Rogge mentioned in relation to that “It is no understatement to say that all we admired about Olympism in 2012 would not have been possible without Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin gave all of himself to his cause. On this New Year's Day, the entire Olympic Movement tips its hat to the man who started it all. Happy 150th!” 

The leadership problems of FILA, the international governing body of wrestling, were also surfaced in the press. FILA president Raphael Martinetti was forced to quit after receiving a no-confidence vote of FILA members last month at a World Cup event in Thailand following the controversial drop of sport from the core Olympic programme. Nenad Lalovic from Serbia replaced him and set in place a new approach of lobbying with the IOC, under the guidance of the renowned public relations company ‘Weber Shandwick’, associated with the successful management of the Beijing and Sochi bids. 

However, all the above points (not accounting here how much they actually contributed or not to the outcome) have not really raised the inherent technical problems of wrestling even preceding their first appearance in Athens Olympics in 1896. The basic French Rules for the World Wrestling Championships, organised before the revived Olympics, had not been fully accepted in either the United Kingdom or in the United States as of 1893, two core nations of the Olympic revival effort. Also, although sports such as the newly emerged volleyball and basketball codified their rules according to a rather universal rules system, wrestling and its variants originating from many different ethnic backgrounds struggled to agree on a ‘common language’. As the historian Donald Sayenga has pointed out “Nevertheless, there have been several noteworthy attempts during the last three centuries to devise uniform international wrestling rules, many of which have obtained limited success” and lists at least seven attempts to devise a universal style ranging from Japan, to Switzerland, Germany, France, USA and Soviet Union. The Olympic history of wrestling is also one of turmoil and disagreements when it comes to the international rules and variant wrestling styles. For example between 1913- 1920 protests were fuelled against biased officials at Stockholm and pressurised for the creation of an international governing body, named as the Internationaler Amateur Verband fur Schwerathletik which was created during a general athletics congress held in June 1913 at Berlin by German and Hungarian leaders. The consensus view was to standardise a single style of wrestling, i.e., the French wrestling rules, but no progress was made due to the war interruption. 

For three decades 1922-1952, there was still little consensus in relation to the adoption of the basic Lausannefreestyle and Greco-Roman style rules. In Switzerland and in the USA a dichotomy was created between those who adopted the FILA/IAWF and to those who opposed them. And such confrontations lasted for years. Any attempts made from FILA to amend the rules and improve the sport usually resulted in several controversies. As historian Donald Sayenga again notes, “For example, a flaweddemerit system was instituted to systematically eliminate non-finalists. In 1932 at LosAngeles, a “first” medal was awarded to a Swede who had been defeated by the Finn who wasawarded the “second” medal.Also, a dispute over the demerit system caused a match won byan American to be re-wrestled with the same result, but demerits awarded by judges caused theAmerican winner to be eliminated, while the Hungarian loser went on to gain “second” medal. And similar stories are repeated in 1936 at Berlin and beyond with a continuing amendment of the rules, also in the years of domination by the Soviet wrestlers for about forty years. Even today there is no consensus for an appealing international rules system. John Irving, a former wrestler and coach and a sports author, recently commented in The New York Times, “But if American wrestling is strong, in recent years international wrestling has done significant damage to itself. Just look at the stupid rules for overtime: the defeatist ball draw (in which, roughly, a wrestler draws a coloured ball to determine his or her position) and the unfair “clinch” (as it’s called); these are such bad rules that people who don’t know wrestling can’t understand them, even when I explain them... These rules are certifiable crowd-killers”. It is worth mentioning here that in ancient Greece there was no margin of doubt who was crowned the winner: him who managed to throw on the ground his opponent three times (even if the opponent touched the ground only with his elbow, knee or other part of his body). 

Looking retrospectively at the troublesome history of the organisation of wrestling in modern Olympics, it does not actually surprise us that it may be axed after 2020. Without disregarding any controversial issues of transparency and responsibility of the IOC, the Executive Board’s decision can also be seen as a catalyst for wrestling to face its own demons. Interestingly, such a call comes from an organisation like the IOC which has also experienced several problems in its past: protests from women pressure groups since the 1920s; opposition from the working classes during the inter-war period to drop amateurism as a value and to democratise the Olympic movement; re-inventing its image in the wake of ethical and doping scandal and the list goes on. Now it seems to be the time for wrestling to respond to the call. FILA may as well be on the right track. In Lalovic’s own words “"FILA have already begun a number of innovative initiatives to modernise the governance, presentation and promotion of our sport”. And, as George Santayana has said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."


Dr Dikaia Chatziefstathiou

Reader in Olympic Studies & the Social Analysis of Sport, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK 
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 Dr Evangelos Albanidis

Associate Professor of Sports History, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece
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Irving, J. (2013) How Wrestling Lost the Olympics, The New York Times, Published 15th of February 2013. Available:  https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/opinion/how-wrestling-lost-the-olympics.html?pagewanted=1&_r=5&

Santayana, G. (1924) The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress: Reason in Common Sense (2nd ed.) Charles Scribner's Sons, New York (originally published 1905)

Sayenga, D. (1995) The Problem of Wrestling “Styles” in Modern Olympic Games – A Failure of Olympic Philosophy, Journal of Olympic History, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp. 19-30 Available:  https://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JOH/JOHv3n3/JOHv3n3e.pdf

Sean Cottrell

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