Baseball/softball, wrestling and…squash? Yes those were the three sports the International Olympic Committee put forward on Wednesday for a September vote by its members for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 Games. The announcement came in St, Petersburg, Russia, and sent sports like wushu, wakeboarding and karate back to their federations for the foreseeable future.
American sports fans may have mixed feelings on at least two of the sports. Wrestling and baseball/softball were booted from the Games and have been mounting campaigns to get back in, while squash, a favorite throughout New England at least, will be making its first foray into the Games.
If wrestling is successful it could be one of the quickest comeback stories in any sport. The original Olympic sport was removed from The Games following an executive committee vote just this past February, but very quickly fired its president, enacted sweeping fan friendly rule changes, created opportunities for women and girls, established a big social presence, brought in celebrities and raised millions to help promote the sport both through the International Governing Body (FILA) and through a newly created organization called CPOW (Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling). Their meet between Russia, the US and Iran in Grand Central Terminal last month, dubbed “Grapple In The Apple,” garnered international press akin to a Super Bowl, and united three countries that don’t see eye to eye on many things outside of wrestling. They also got a bug emotional lift from one of the fastest growing entities in sport business, Mixed Martial Arts, as both the industry leader, the UFC, and its number two promotion, Bellator, went to the mat in creating promotional opportunities for wrestling during their events.
Even though the IOC usually frowns on political pressure, wrestling generated support from no less than 20 states in the US that passed resolutions asking for its reinstatement and got strong pushes from the likes of Russian president Putin and Iranian president Ahmadinejad , certainly a unique triumvirate.
“We probably needed this 20 years ago, and it is disappointing that it came down to this, but we are certainly showing that we can respond to the changes the IOC wanted, and they will make the sport better in the long run,” said USA Wrestling head Rich Bender in a conference call following the vote.
Baseball/softball, especially without the support of Major League Baseball players, a necessity put forward in previous years by IOC President Rogge, was perhaps the biggest surprise for advancement from this week’s announcement. However the fact that the coalition between baseball and softball really pushed a women’s inclusion gave the sport new life on the international front. An ever-growing World Baseball Classic also helped bolster the visibility of the sport, which has seen Major League Baseball pump millions into global development in recent years.
And squash? An elite sport that is growing in emerging nations, and has a huge presence in India, advanced on the strength of its inclusion of all peoples and its relative portability of locations. It will benefit by meeting the IOC mandate of bringing in a “new” sport to the Games, since baseball/softball and wrestling have had their shot at the rings. Will that be enough?
“You can’t find anyone around the world who understood the exclusion of wrestling as an Olympic sport,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing and a longtime fixture on Olympic business. “Baseball certainly doesn’t need the Olympics to be successful globally and squash probably presents a strong case, but the Olympics without wrestling? It’s not good business or good politics, and I think the powers that be took the wakeup call and responded as fast as humanly possible.”
The final decision will come in Argentina in September, by vote of the IOC members. Until then the three sports completed a big first hurdle, and now the race, part marathon, part sprint, will be on to see who the winner will be.