Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
On Tuesday, we were having a conversation that we had eight years ago.
When the International Olympic Committee decided to drop baseball and softball from its unit of 25 core sports in 2005, Americans adopted the defensive position immediately. How can sports so beloved by those in our country be too unpopular for the Olympics? The immediate response was to discredit the other sports sponsored by the IOC, "fringe" sports like synchronized swimming, ribbon dancing and horse jumping.
When the IOC delivered the stunning announcement that it would drop wrestling from the Olympics in 2020, we immediately defaulted to the same reaction. How can we justify things like racewalking and badminton but not wrestling, a sport that has been part of the program since the dawn of the modern Olympics?
I completely agree that wrestling should still be part of the Olympics program. But my rhetoric is a little different.
When baseball and softball got dropped, the reasons ultimately made sense. Softball just wasn't popular enough around the world, leading to gold-medal landslides for the United States. Baseball, meanwhile, had a couple strikes against it, including the pall of performance enhancing drugs across the landscape. Also, since the Games take place during the summer, Major League Baseball players naturally weren't taking part, leaving out so many of the world's best athletes in the sport.
Quite honestly, dropping baseball and softball made some sense.
My first reaction to the loss of wrestling was there must be a simple global participation disparity to explain it. It's so difficult for Americans to see beyond the bounds of the country's borders (as an example, see the dismissive attitude toward soccer), so I took the devil's advocate position. Surely, not enough countries put emphasis on wrestling.
Nope. The international wrestling federation, FILA, sponsors athletes from 177 countries. Meanwhile, another sport that figured to be in the conversation for removal from the Olympics, modern pentathlon, represents 108 countries.
So there must be some other reason to lose wrestling. The board voted after analyzing 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and popularity. But the final decision doesn't necessarily figure in any of those elements, and results of the voting are not released to the public. Thus, political factors and pure emotion or preference can safely come into play, shielded from public consumption.
And that's where we have a problem. Let's take a look at our friend, modern pentathlon.
Conflict of interest
Modern pentathlon dates back a long way, too, to 1912. The sport combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting. Essentially, it's a collection of random sports from other corners of the Olympic environment. I'm guessing you didn't know which five sports were included, and that should tell you something about its TV ratings.
The sport has been on the chopping block before, but it's survived each time. Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jr. - the son of former IOC president by the same name - is vice president of the UIPM organization, the worldwide equivalent to FILA for pentathlon. He's also on the IOC board, which means he has a vote.
With the last name Samaranch, he also probably carries plenty of weight with other members of the IOC. Basically, the sport of modern pentathlon has a patron saint.
Samaranch said he stressed the positives of his sport when the board met to decide which sport to cut, pointing to the tradition and the completeness of athlete involved. But it seems curious that this sport, one that has been scrutinized multiple times before and one that doesn't have the level of participation as wrestling, would be saved while one of the Olympic staples would be suddenly shown the door.
It sure helps to have some pull in a sphere that's supposed to be liberated from the ugly influence of politics.
The Olympics have a set number of "core" sports (28) and disciplines within those sports, with a set number of athletes and events in which athletes can participate. The committee has chosen to drop a sport to open a door for a newcomer in 2020, with wrestling among those welcome to apply for Olympic status. The others are baseball and softball (again), karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. Golf and rugby will join the program in 2016.
It's important to remember how these core sports work when comparing wrestling to others on the list.
To argue racewalking (a component of "athletics," which is basically track and field), synchronized swimming (under "aquatics") or trampoline (gymnastics) should be ousted in favor of wrestling won't work, because wrestling is competing against the broader category. On the other hand, sports such as badminton, equestrian, fencing, field hockey and sailing are all among those the IOC has decided to keep in lieu of wrestling.
I'm curious to see how the advancement of Twitter and social media will play a role in what comes next. The IOC must stand up to new pressure with the world more capable than ever of voicing its opinion, and petitions have already begun to circulate to save wrestling.
At some point soon, I think the Samaranch/pentathlon connection will become the main story here. Meanwhile, instead of trying to decide which sports are dumber than wrestling, we will ask the right question. Why should a collection of other Olympic disciplines get to stand as a separate sport instead of wrestling, with greater participation and greater tradition?
Pictured: Ben Askren, formerly of Arrowhead High School (right) wrestles Cuba's Ivan Fundora in the 74-kg freestyle match in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The "core" Olympic sports are as follows:
athletics (track and field and related events)
**golf and rugby will join the program in 2016.