Wrestling easily defeated bids by baseball-softball and squash for a spot on the programme of the 2020 Games, which were awarded 24 hours earlier to the Japanese capital.
Wrestling, which was surprisingly dropped from the list of core sports in February, received 49 votes to win in the first round of secret balloting by the International Olympic Committee. Baseball-softball got 24 votes and squash 22.
The decision capped a frantic six-month lobbying campaign by wrestling body FILA to revamp the organisation and reshape the sport to save its Olympic status.
“With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference,” FILA president Nenad Lalovic said.
“I assure each of you that our modernisation will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic movement that we can be.”
The vote followed final presentations by all three sports, with Lalovic promising the delegates that wrestling had learned its lesson.
“Today is the most important day in the 3,000-year history of our sport,” Lalovic said. “We feel the weight of that history. Remaining on the Olympic programme is crucial to wrestling’s survival.”
Wrestling goes back to the ancient Olympics in Greece and has been on the programme of every modern Games except 1900. The sport was caught off guard when it was axed by the IOC executive board – a decision that surprised even most IOC members.
“We have made mistakes,” Lalovic added. “We admitted but we decided to listen and learn. This is the only way to be a partner of the IOC. We are aware of our mistakes and they will not happen again. We have to update our sport, like any other sport, every day.”
The result was welcomed by IOC members as rectifying a mistake.
“We cannot imagine the games without wrestling,” said Sheik Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the influential Kuwaiti who heads the Association of National Olympic Committees. “Wrestling is a founder. Today was a great result.”
Squash was trying to make the Olympics for the third time. Men’s baseball and women’s softball merged into a single federation to try to return after being dropped for the 2012 and 2016 Games.
Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president within days of the IOC vote and was replaced by Lalovic.
FILA revamped its structure, giving women and athletes a role in decision making, added two weight classes for women and adopted rule changes to make the sport easier to understand and more fun to watch.
Powerful countries and unlikely political allies like the United States, Iran and Russia threw their weight behind the campaign. “Wrestling is new in virtually every way,” FILA official Jim Scherr told the delegates.
Each sport had 20 minutes to make its case to the IOC and Antonio Castro, the son of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, played up baseball’s global appeal after Don Porter, the veteran head of the international softball federation, had broken down in tears during his presentation.
World squash federation (WSF) president N. Ramachandran said his sport would represent the future and not the past, an apparent dig at wrestling.
Ramachandran later admitted he was grief-stricken by the decision — it is the third time thatsquash has failed to be included in the Olympic Games.
He said: “This decision is heartbreaking for the millions of squash players around the world, particularly given the ten-year journey we have been on to join the programme.
“As the only new Olympic sport on the shortlist, we believed squash offered something for the future and I still hope that our inclusion may still be possible.”
Laura Massaro, the British world No 2, said she hoped the sport would continue to campaign for Olympics inclusion.
She said: “It is really disappointing news to hear that squash has again failed in its bid to make the 2020 Olympic Games.
“Everyone involved in the sport is extremely upset that we won’t be part of the Games in 2020. We will carry on learning from the bid process in the hope we can make Olympic status one day in the future.”
Wrestling is now assured a spot at both the 2020 and 2024 Games, while both squash and baseball/softball are free to bid again for 2024.
Under current rules the number of sports at any Olympic Games is capped at 28.