IT felt like a karate chop, an ippon and a heavyweight’s haymaker all rolled into one. The wrestling community had never been dealt such a savage blow and they never even saw it coming.
People in uninitiated lands such as ours wonder why they bother with sports such as wrestling in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Similarly, on the Horn of Africa they aren’t sure what all the fuss is about with curling. But wrestling is a big deal in most of the countries that have any serious global clout. That much was proved by the strength and scale of the rearguard action that followed the decision by the International Olympic Committee’s executive board to expel them from the Greatest Show on Earth, in 2020 and beyond.
A multi-national chorus of the appalled quickly found its voice, and the “Save Olympic Wrestling” campaign was full of coherence and force. A Facebook petition attracted 98,000 signatories. The campaigners even had the courage to apply wit, celebrating wrestling as an organised activity that predates Christianity by hundreds of years. When you put it like that, how could the delegates in Lausanne say no?
“It was an amazing campaign,” says Michael Cavanagh, the former wrestler who now chairs Commonwealth Games Scotland. “I think it was February this year when they kicked it out, and I was with someone who was getting messages from the IOC conference and he showed me this message that said: ‘Wrestling has been voted out of the Olympics,’ and I couldn’t believe it.
“We knew we were one of seven or eight sports that were in the frame [for ejection], but we never imagined for a moment we would be in trouble.
“I think the campaign was fantastic. There needed to be a refresh at the top; Raphi Martinetti, who had been president for a while, I don’t think was doing a particularly good job, and he kind of fell asleep at the wheel on that issue.
“So that meant a change. I haven’t met the new guy [Nenad Lalovic of Serbia] but he’s done a great job of pulling that campaign together.
“As a number of people pointed out, some of the publicity actually got USA, Iran and Russia together for one cause, never mind one sport. There’s not a single thing in the world that gets USA, Iran and Russia on the same page. I bought a T-shirt myself as part of the Save Olympic Wrestling campaign, and it says on the back ‘Established 708 BC,’ which I think is a cracking line.
“But it just seemed bizarre to me. It is a massive sport in some countries; in fact two of the three candidate cities for the 2020 Games, Istanbul and Tokyo, are places where wrestling is massive. There’s no way they would have wanted to run a Games without wrestling.”
The IOC rescinded their decision at a secret ballot in Buenos Aires in September. But the reason wrestling, like modern pentathlon, assumed it would always remain an Olympic sport was history. The guardians of the movement have a duty to preserve the ancient simplicity of discipline that made it great in the first place.
And old is not always better than new. Wrestling, like boxing, now rightly accommodates female as well as male competitors, at least in the freestyle format, where there will be seven weights for both sexes at next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. In the Olympics the balance is still lopsided in favour of men (7-4), and Greco-Roman wrestling is male-only.
Cavanagh says there are strong grounds for believing Scottish wrestling, which only has “a couple of hundred” serious participants, can add to the home medal tally. “We’ve always produced really talented wrestlers – it’s strange,” says the veteran of Brisbane 1982. “It used to be if you wanted to make it, you’d have to leave Scotland and go to college in Canada or the States. But we’ve got an absolutely fantastic coach in Scotland now, a guy called Vladimir Gladkov, who I think is one of the best coaches in the world.
“For the women, the quality of the field isn’t as strong as the men’s. Canada are world class and India are world class, but beyond that there are medals up for grabs. Some of our women are showing signs of being in the medal zone – and there are two bronze medals on offer again in Glasgow. In Delhi, there was only one and the number of Scots who missed out in the bronze medal match was incredible.”
Cavanagh is ever-realistic about wrestling’s place in Scotland, just as he rightly acknowledges its colossal global popularity. So why plump for the action at the SECC Precinct in the second draft of Glasgow 2014 ticket sales, coming up soon?
“You’ll enjoy it because it’s a great spectacle,” he states. “You’ll see fantastic athletes working incredibly hard. I can sit and watch and admire all the technicalities, but you don’t need to know that. You’ll see people flying through the air, basically, and it looks great.”