Will it be Wrestling Mania?

The Mumbai Mirror page on which the article appeared.

The Mumbai Mirror page on which the article appeared.

The more one thinks about this, the more one is convinced that wrestling should never have figured in this match. But in the six months since it was put in a do-or-die situation, it has rallied remarkably to be favourite and regain its place on the 2020 Olympic programme ahead of challengers Squash and the Baseball-Softball combination.

As the International Olympic Committee’s 125th Session in Buenos Aires sits in judgement on Sunday over these three sports and the possibility of their inclusion in the Olympic programme in 2020 and 2024, each of these disciplines must consider itself in with a fair chance to edge the other two out.

It does appear that wrestling has done well in a remarkably short time to turn the tide in its favour. Though squash and the Baseball-Softball combination have had a head start in terms of time to prepare their presentations, the emotional appeal of the traditional sport – after all, it figured in the Ancient Olympic Games too – has made can swing crucial votes in its favour.

From our own double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar to basketball legend Magic Johnson, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, from the United States to Iran, the world has been united by the #takeastance campaign on traditional and social media – Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, YouTube videos.

Yet, it has not been about the emotional outpouring over the past six months alone that will weigh in for wrestling. After the sharp rap on its knuckles in February, the International Wrestling Federation (FILA) made a sea change in its structure and attitude. If these had not happened, 2016 may well have spelt swansong for wrestling on the Olympic schedule.

There has been a leadership change – one that has shown a willingness to take on the challenge and not merely sit back thinking that the IOC members would favour the sport in any case. More women were inducted into the administration and two more women’s weight categories have been included.

Above all, FILA chose to eliminate the luck of the draw – it allowed a wrestler to pick a ball from a bag to determine overtime positions and the wrestler awarded the offensive spot in a blind draw almost always prevailed – besides changing the format to two three-minute periods with bonus points to discourage passive wrestling.

After resisting change for years, wrestling has adapted and galvanised itself, making the most of the repechage that the IOC handed it by letting it compete with Squash and Baseball-Softball combo. Be that as it may, the lessons are clear for all sporting disciplines: Keep pace with the times, innovate or be knocked out.

Watching FILA respond to the challenge laid down by the exclusion in February this year has almost been like watching a sluggish bout come alive in extra period. Clearly, those running the sport did not heed the warning signs – and, in some instances, even lucid messages – that it was caught in a time warp. The IOC’s wake-up call has been the catalyst for the sport.

It must not be forgotten that hockey pipped wrestling to the calendar. Even as two contenders, who will miss the 2020 bus, renew their efforts and seek a place in the Olympic programme for 2024, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) will do well to ensure that TV ratings for the sport are high during the Rio de Janeiro Games three years from now. Given that sport like Modern Pentathlon and Taekwondo appear to enjoy the backing of powerful lobbies within the Olympic community, hockey better watch its back!

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, September 8, 2013.