Hamilton Olympic wrestler shocked by IOC decision to drop sport

Chris Woodcroft wrestled for Canada in the summer Olympics twice, and says he was stunned to hear that the sport could end up being cut from the 2012 event.
Livan Lopez Azcuy of Cuba competes with Haislan Veranes Garcia of Canada (in blue) during their 66-kg freestyle wrestling match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Olympic program earlier this week, a surprise decision that removes one of the oldest Olympic sports from the 2020 Games. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Hamilton's wrestling community is reeling from the news that one of the world's oldest sports might not be featured in the Olympics come 2020.

"There's nothing purer than wrestling for body, mind and soul," said Chris Woodcroft, who wrestled for Canada in the 1998 summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Woodcroft told CBC Hamilton he was shocked and disappointed to hear earlier this week that International Olympic Committee leaders had dropped wrestling from the Olympic program. The surprise decision removes one of the oldest Olympic sports from the 2020 Games.

"It's the pinnacle of any athlete's career," Woodcroft said. "It makes you feel like you're at the highest level possible. It reassures who you are."

On Tuesday, the IOC executive board decided to retain modern pentathlon — the event considered most at risk — and remove wrestling instead from its list of 25 "core sports."

The IOC board acted after reviewing the 26 sports on the current Olympic program. Eliminating one sport allows the International Olympic Committee to add a new sport to the program later this year.

"This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling, it is what's right with the 25 core sports."

Adams said the decision was made by secret ballot over several rounds, with members voting each time on which sport should not be included in the core group. IOC President Jacques Rogge did not vote.

An ancient tradition

Wrestling, which combines freestyle and Greco-Roman events, goes back to the inaugural modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

"It's one of the original sports from the ancient Olympics and the modern Olympics," said John DiBenedetto, the coach of the Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School wrestling program in the city's east end.

"It's like removing an original six hockey team."

Bishop Ryan has long been considered a powerhouse in Ontario wrestling, with 35 gold, 31 silver and 23 bronze medals under its belt at the provincial high school level.

Both Woodcroft and his brother Greg (who wrestled for Canada in the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta) went through the Bishop Ryan program.

Woodcroft says one of wrestling's greatest strengths as a sport is the fact that anyone can get involved — no matter what the financial circumstances.

"It doesn't cost you anything," Woodcroft said. "Kids that can't play hockey or golf — they wrestle."

Stumped by sluggish sales

Wrestling was voted out from a final group of sports that included modern pentathlon, taekwondo and field hockey, officials familiar with the vote said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the voting details were not made public.

The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program that analyzed 39 criteria, including television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.

Both Woodcroft and DiBenedetto were surprised that ticket sales for Olympic wrestling events were reportedly sagging.

"The finals in '92 and '96 were sellout events," DiBenedetto said. "It was so hard to find tickets in Atlanta."

Woodcroft agrees. "It was a packed house for the medal rounds," he said. "And when I wrestled in Istanbul in Turkey, there were 20,000 people there. It's their national sport."

"I can guarantee if you hosted the Olympics in Turkey, Cuba or Russia, they'd be putting wrestling back in."

'Decision is not final'

Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in the 2020 games. The others are baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. These sports will be vying for a single opening in 2020.

The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"[The wrestling] decision is not final," Adams said. "The session is sovereign and the session will make the final decision."

However, it is extremely unlikely that wrestling would be voted back in so soon after being removed by the executive board.

A final push

IOC President Jacques Rogge will meet with the head of wrestling's governing body to discuss ways the sport can fight to save its place in the 2020 Olympics.

Rogge said Wednesday he has been contacted by Raphael Martinetti, the president of international wrestling federation FILA, and was encouraged by the determination of the sport's supporters to remain in the games.

"We agreed we would meet at the first opportunity to have discussions," Rogge said at a news conference at the close of a two-day board meeting. "I should say FILA reacted well to this disheartening news for them.

"They vowed to adapt the sport and vowed to fight to be eventually included in the 2020 slot."

Wrestling remains on the program for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

With files from The Canadian Press