Ever hear of Wushu? It may be the sport of the 21st Century if the International Olympic Committee has its way. One thing that is clear is that wrestling, the amateur version, the one that has spawned some of the greatest competitors in what is now Mixed Martial Arts, not to mention some of the modern Olympic Games most compelling stories (Rulon Gardner, Henry Cejudo, Jordan Burroughs, Dan Gable, Bruce Baumgartner), is not on the short list any more of those in the Ivory Tower in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The sport, which has been involved in Olympics for centuries, was dumped from the programme for 2020 Tuesday, and now will have to fight its way back in for inclusion along with Wushu, – baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, and wakeboarding. The other sports there were targeted for removal, only one would be chosen, were modern pentathlon, badminton, taekwondo and table tennis. While the reason for the surprise elimination is still unclear, the lack of interest in emerging areas like China, India and Africa could be a factor, along with its large number of athletes, lengthy tournament, and a perceived lack of global television potential.
Still with all those factors, those in and around sport were surprised. The elimination of an Olympic platform will devastate funding not just in other countries but in the U.S. as well, and could mean that one of America’s most traditional sports could face a dim future. Even with all that factored in, those involved in the sport are already looking for ways to reverse the decision.
“There’s a great adage, don’t pick a fight with a wrestler, because you’re going to get your ass kicked,” Mike Novogratz, the Fortress Investment Group LLC principal and director, and one of the people responsible for raising millions for the inner city wrestling program “Beat The Streets,” told Bloomberg News Tuesday. “All of a sudden, someone’s decided to pick a fight with 5 million wrestlers. People will be surprised by the reaction.” Novogratz, who is one of a large number of senior executives on Wall Street who wrestled in college, high school or at the club level (he is a Princeton grad) mentioned to Forbes.com that close to a half million dollars has already been raised in 24 hours to support the effort.
Another business that could take a long term hit if wrestling disappears is Mixed Martial Arts. A long list of those elite wrestlers who have finished their career with Olympic glory have gone on to be some of the biggest names in the UFC or other promotions like Bellator, and without that pipeline, the fast-growing sport could see a loss of vital talent that could go elsewhere.
Like in the grassroots community, those supporting MMA chimed in with support as well. “ Wrestling is in our DNA at Spike TV,” said Spike TV president Kevin Kaye . “As the home of Bellator MMA and IMPACT wrestling, we recognize the incredible athleticism and dedication it takes to become a world class wrestler like Kurt Angle, Ben Askren, or Randy Couture. We are disappointed in the IOC’s recent decision to drop a sport loved by millions worldwide and are hopeful to see wrestling take its rightful place in the Olympic Games in 2020.”
Whether all that grassroots support can make a difference in the murky backwater political dealings of the IOC is anyone’s guess. The time frame to turn the decision around is a short one, with IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from September 7-10 to be the place where the 2020 decisions will be made.
In the meantime, thousands of supporters of the sport of wrestling were dealt a huge surprise yesterday, one which from a sports business perspective can be devastating down the line not just for those who rill on the mats, but for the mega-sports properties that have grown off the backs of some of the most unique and intriguing athletes of the past century.