Magic Johnson took a stance to save Olympic wrestling. So did Mickey Mouse.
Rulon Gardner took his on the Great Wall of China. The less famous hunkered down in front of the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower and mosques in Iran, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and even in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. If the swells who run the International Olympic Committee have lingering doubts about the lengths to which wrestling enthusiasts would go to save the sport, well, let ’em check out how many brides and grooms around the world posed for “ready, set, wrestle” snapshots — view them at #TakeAStance — just moments before exchanging vows.
When the IOC served notice last February that it was prepared to toss wrestling out of the Olympic rings by the 2020 Games, rather than its clout-heavy competitors, modern pentathlon and field hockey, the uproar was swift and loud. Wrestling had more fans, more viewers, more member nations and millions more participants around the globe, if only because you don’t need a javelin or a horse to compete.
But the IOC did the sport a favor.
Wrestling resembled your cranky, know-it-all uncle who always shows up late at the family dinner — bloated, bombastic, and still determined to live off a glorious past. The purest of sports had grown flabby, piling on layers of rules and a convoluted scoring system that made it hard to follow. Yet those at the top of the international federation — known by the acronym FILA — shrugged off every warning or proposal for even modest changes, certain they knew what was best.
Seven months later, those men are gone, replaced by a leadership group that is smart, inclusive and willing to listen. The rules and scoring system have been overhauled, and Gardner’s rallying cry from February — “If we don’t fight, we’re going to die” — has been heard and heeded in the farthest-flung corners of the globe.
The IOC votes Sunday among wrestling, squash, and a combined bid from baseball-softball to determine which sport gets the final spot in 2020, and it is not expected to be close. Most observers believe the IOC has already been pinned.
It’s not hard to understand the timeless appeal of wrestling, but what the IOC is looking for nearly three millennia after the original Olympics is what they got in the closing days of last summer’s London Games. That’s when a smart, cocky bundle of U.S. energy named Jordan Burroughs faced Iran’s Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi in the middleweight freestyle gold medal final.
The atmosphere inside the ExCel Center was electric, with chants from the fans of two of the sport’s traditional powers being traded like punches. With the clock running down in each of the first two rounds, Burroughs coolly executed a double-leg takedown of Goudarzi to lock up the match and make a third period immaterial.
Afterward, Burroughs waltzed into the interview room and handled a reporter mining the geopolitical angle with the same elan he had displayed on the mat just moments earlier.
“Did it make any difference that you were wrestling an Iranian?” he was asked.
“If the Queen of England stepped out onto the mat,” Burroughs replied mischievously, “I’d probably double-leg her.”
Burroughs will almost certainly be back for Rio in 2016, having so far rebuffed the blandishments and better paydays in mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting that have siphoned off so many of his successful predecessors. The UFC circuit boasts that nearly 70 percent of its fighters wrestled in high school and college, including stars Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, and more than a few of them joined the #TakeAStance campaign as it rolled out.
Unlike those competitions, though, wrestling still looks like your father’s sport. What’s different, in addition to the compressed Olympic version now on offer — two rounds instead of three; more incentives in the new scoring system for wrestlers to take chances — is that it could become your mother’s sport, too.
In addition to adding women and former athletes to the federation’s leadership, FILA is proposing two more weight classes for women, taking one each from men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman.
“We have done everything possible in this time frame,” said FILA president Nenad Lalovic, who took over from the imperious Raphael Martinetti just days after the IOC’s action in February. “We were limited by the time between, (but we did) everything possible, and implemented it.”
If the IOC needs more proof, here’s a suggestion: Check out the photo op from New York City in mid-May, when the wrestling communities from the United States, Russia and Iran united in a combined appeal to save the sport. There’s likely not another cause on the planet at the moment that could do that.