In retrospect, we probably should have known better. Right there in Rule 46 of the Olympic Charter, which concerns the “Programme of the Olympic Games,” it says the choice of all sports, disciplines and events for each games “falls within the competence” of the International Olympic Committee and its various tentacles.
Interesting choice of words, “competence.” Maybe “jurisdiction” might have been a better choice. Or “purview.” “Auspices”?
I imagine it would take a marathon session of word association before “competence” and the IOC were joined together by anyone but members of the body itself. A legacy of everything from eyebrow-raising decisions to flat-out corruption has seen to that, but the IOC outdid itself Tuesday.
Wrestling. Think about that for a moment.
What sport better symbolizes the basic ideals of the Olympics than wrestling? Mano a mano. Strength, skill, technique. No equipment to speak of aside from the relatively recent development of headgear.
The vagaries of scoring can be elusive, particularly in the Greco-Roman discipline, but there’s an unquestionable purity about the sport, the timelessness of it. This isn’t something like NASCAR, where the most skilled driver can be undone at the Daytona 500 by a mechanical issue. It’s all right there on the mat, between two men — and, since the 2004 Athens Olympics, women.
That simplicity assures a certain universality, too. While popularity obviously varies from country to country and region to region, there is at least some presence pretty much worldwide. That’s something that can’t be said for, say, baseball and softball, which were dropped after 2008 and have mounted a joint bid to be reinstated for 2020.
Athletes from 29 countries medaled in wrestling at the London Games last summer. Those medals skewed toward Asia — Russia, Japan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan — but a list of the entrants shows competitors from Cuba, Hungary, Ecuador, Denmark, Tunisia, Sweden, Venezuela and the Ivory Coast, among other locales.
Beyond that modern global appeal, though, it’s wrestling’s history that makes this vote so mind-boggling.
Let’s go back to the IOC’s website, which includes this passage: “With the possible exception of athletics, wrestling is recognised as the world’s oldest competitive sport. Indeed cave drawings of wrestlers have been found dating as far back as 3000 BC. The sport was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 708 BC.”
And it has appeared in every modern Olympics with the exception of the Paris Games in 1900. Then again, the program that year included cricket, croquet, Basque pelota and tug of war, so perhaps wrestling was honored by its exclusion.
Speculation heading into Tuesday’s vote had modern pentathlon as the sport most likely on the outs. A creation of Baron de Coubertin, patriarch of the modern Olympics, the sport is a combination of shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running that was considered a test of the ideal skill set for a cavalry officer.
Hardly a relevant endeavor these days, it nonetheless had a decided advantage when the doors were closed in Lausanne, Switzerland: Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son and namesake of the all-powerful former IOC president and himself an IOC board member, also happens to be vice president of modern pentathlon’s international governing body.