ATHENS, Greece — Wrestling is a really ancient sport. It has been documented in prehistoric cave paintings. There are literary allusions of wrestling matches in 13th century BC, when the Greeks besieged Troy. It was a staple of the ancient Olympics, having been introduced at the 18th Olympiad, in 708 BC, and remained at the program until the very end, 273 Games later. It was a part of the modern revival of the Olympics in 1896 and has been held at every Games since. Yet, wrestling’s many practitioners around the world are hoping it won’t be history anytime soon.
This weekend, more than 100 wrestlers, men and women, from 12 countries, as well as top officials of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) came back to the sport’s roots in Ancient Olympia to find inspiration in the place and, perhaps, to consult with the gods on their campaign to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
Last February, in a decision that shocked the world of sports well beyond wrestling, the International Olympic Committee voted to exclude the sport after the 2016 Rio Games. The rationale was that modern audiences would rather watch skateboarding, or some such more “exciting” sport, although actual attendance at the Games had always been high.
There was grumbling that some arcane rules, such as the inexplicable decision, a few years back, to award the wins not on the total number of points but of rounds won, were baffling to the audience. Also, the FILA president, Raphael Martinetti, appeared to rub many IOC officials the wrong way.
“He was a great part of the reason why they voted to drop the sport,” Paris Kourtzidis, a former wrestler himself and now communications director told The Associated Press from Ancient Olympia, in a telephone interview.
FILA reacted immediately. It replaced Martinetti with an interim president, Nenad Lalovic. It brought back the rule deciding matches on aggregate points, if there is no fall. And, most importantly, it launched a big publicity campaign, enlisting former athletes, not only from wrestling, but also from other sports. Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched in. Countries such as Russia, the U.S. and Iran found themselves supporting the same cause. Nations with a long tradition of wrestling, and who have won a big part of their Olympic medals in the sport, such as Greece and Turkey, joined in. In May, the IOC decided that wrestling, along with baseball/softball and squash would compete for inclusion in the 2020 Games. The vote will take place in September, in Buenos Aires, when the IOC will also decide on the host of that year’s Games. Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo are all in the running.
The second Olympia tournament is just one of several tournaments used by FILA to push the sport’s case. It is the only one, however, held in a venue so laden with symbolism.
The event was not held in the old stadium, in deference to the need to preserve the ancient space and also to the blistering heat that would severely test the athletes in a shadeless space. The event was staged at the nearby International Olympic Academy, the institution set up by the IOC to promote the Olympic ideals. Most of the event was held indoors. Only the finals, on Sunday evening, were held outdoors.
A ceremony was held Saturday afternoon in the ancient sporting grounds. There, a little portion of the soil was taken, put in an urn and relayed by athletes to the spot where the heart of the founder of the contemporary Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, is buried, on the Olympic Academy’s grounds. This ceremony will be part of a video in which FILA will plead its case to the IOC.
“If the IOC refuses to reinstate wrestling, we will continue the campaign to reinstate the sport, of course,” said Kourtzidis. But those federations that cannot find sponsors will suffer. We know for sure that state aid to the Greek federation will dwindle to almost nothing. And, in these circumstances, it will be tough to keep young kids from drifting to other sports. You don’t get into wrestling to become a professional. The ultimate accomplishment is an Olympic gold.
Kourtzidis added that there have been talks of excluding Greco-Roman wrestling, a discipline based on the ancient wrestling style and which bars holds below the waist, and keep the freestyle event. “In that case, we in the Greek federation will react. This is the old disciopline we are talking about.”