Sports and politics made for strange mat fellows last week when wrestlers from Iran, Russia and the U.S. joined for an exhibition match in New York City's Grand Central Terminal. The intent was to raise the visibility of the sport in an effort to salvage its Olympic status. "We are brothers defending our honor," Iran's Taghavi Kermani, a two-time world champion, said through an interpreter. "Somebody is trying to steal something from us."
In February, faced with the mandate to drop one sport from those with a guaranteed position on the Olympic program through 2020, the IOC's 15-member executive board stunningly chose wrestling, forcing one of the world's most time-honored sports to campaign for its Olympic life. "We believe in wrestling so much that what brings us together is more important than our differences," says Jordan Burroughs, a U.S. gold medalist at the London Games in 2012. "We'll do what it takes."
First, FILA, the sport's international governing body, replaced its president, Raphael Martinetti, the Swiss businessman who had ignored hints from IOC members that his sport was growing stale, with Nenad Lalovic, a Serbian member seen as more progressive. Early this month FILA announced that it would replace two men's weight classes with women's classes, leaving six divisions each for women's freestyle, men's freestyle and the all-male Greco-Roman events. Match scoring will soon be cumulative rather than round by round; the random draw used to break ties will be eliminated; and referees will assess more penalties for passivity to encourage action.
On May 29 wrestling will make its case in St. Petersburg, Russia, to the same board that voted to remove it from the Games, vying with seven other sports—karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, wushu (a Chinese martial art) and a combined bid from baseball and softball—to be placed on a short list of three candidates for inclusion in (or restoration to) the program. At the September IOC session in Buenos Aires, the general membership will choose one of those three sports to add in 2020.
Regardless of that decision, the more daunting issue is the uneasy balance between the purity of a sport that dates to the ancient Games and a call for all sports to modernize and appeal to younger generations. "It's a workingman's sport, not a sport for cockiness or arrogance," Burroughs said last week amid the bustle and spectacle of Grand Central. "We're tough to market, because we're old school." Added Cael Sanderson, a U.S. gold medalist in 2004, "We want to grow the sport, but we don't want to lose our soul."