- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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.

Tasked with eliminating a sport from the 2020 Games, the 15-member IOC executive board voted — via secret ballot, naturally — to drop wrestling.

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.

Some might call that a conflict of interest. The IOC would call it business as usual.

As the ballots unwound Tuesday morning, the final tally had eight of the 14 voting members (IOC president Jacques Rogge abstained) opting for elimination of wrestling and three each voting to ax modern pentathlon and field hockey, according to The Associated Press.

So when the Olympians gather in Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo in the summer of 2020, you’ll see modern pentathletes, synchronized swimmers, table tennis players and rhythmic gymnasts marching into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. Oh, and athletes from the sport the IOC will add to the 2020 program in a final vote this September, one from this list: baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding, wushu.

(Yes, I had to look it up, too. Wushu is an ancient Chinese martial art, as far as I can tell from the International Wushu Federation’s website.)

But no wrestlers. Unless, of course, the IOC breaks from custom by acknowledging the firestorm of criticism unleashed by Tuesday’s announcement and grants wrestling re-entry for 2020; it will be considered along with the seven aforementioned contenders.

If only it can beat out squash.