Canadian wrestlers deal with shocking Olympic ouster

CBC

The Canadian wrestling community was delivered a stunning blow Tuesday, and they hope the clock hasn't run out in the fight to keep their sport in the Summer Olympics.

The IOC surprised many Olympic followers by electing to cut wrestling — which includes both freestyle and Greco-Roman categories and men's and women's competitions — from the 2020 program. The sport dates back to the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, and was part of the Ancient Games.

Wrestling was voted out from a final group that also included modern pentathlon, taekwondo and field hockey, officials familiar with the vote told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"I don't think anybody thought it was a threat," Marty Calder told CBCSports.ca. "To be honest, I'm disappointed we were even [among the sports] on the chopping block."

Calder, who's represented Canada at five Olympic Games as both an athlete and now a coach, said he was roused from his sleep early Tuesday and the phone hasn't stopped ringing since he first learned the news from U.S. coach Terry Steiner.

Don Ryan, president of Wrestling Canada, said in a statement that the organization was "deeply surprised" by the decision.

"Canada's wrestling programs have been strong and successful at the international level, and posted strong results in the recent Games," Ryan said. "We have a strong international federation (FILA) and we will work closely with them as called upon to lobby and appeal to the IOC members to reverse this decision that has yet to be ratified … "

Ryan said in a media conference the crowds at last year's London Games were enthusiastic and plentiful, and that meetings with IOC officials in England gave no indication the outcome was even a possibility. He said that FILA was already scheduled to hold a meeting in the coming days, one whose agenda will now change.

Canadian athletes have won 16 Olympic wrestling medals, all in freestyle, since 1908 (See table below).

But only in recent times has Canada consistently reached the podium. When Jeffrey Thue of Regina of won silver at the Barcelona Games, it began a string of six consecutive Olympics with at least one medal for Canada.

Daniel Igali won gold in 2000, an inspiring story just six years after the Nigerian-born wrestler sought asylum in Canada following the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.

Canada is often at the forefront when new Olympic sports for women are added, and wrestling was not an exception.

Tonya Verbeek of Thorold, Ont., one of several top wrestlers Calder has coached, has won a medal in each women's competition held since the inaugural 2004 event, one of a small number of Canadian athletes with at least three career medals.

Carol Huynh of Hazelton, B.C., won gold in Beijing and bronze in London.

"There's so much history," Huynh said. "It's hard to think of an Olympic Games without wrestling."

The program has received a healthy amount of funding from Own the Podium, reflecting the recent women's success. Women's wrestling received $4.1 million for the London quadrennial, three times the amount for Beijing. The funding for men's wrestling dipped to just under $500,000.

All told, wrestling receives more funding in Canada than other head-to-head sports such as taekwondo, judo, boxing and fencing.

The IOC is said to have to assessed sports on criteria ranging from television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity.

Russia and Japan have excelled in the sport in recent years, while the United States has racked up 125 medals in the sport, including one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Games, Rulon Gardner's Greco-Roman win in 2000 over Russian super heavyweight Alexander Karelin, a three-time Olympic champion who hadn't lost in 13 years.

Among the reasons Calder said he was surprised at the decision was the fact the sport is strongly represented by the more populous, powerful nations in the world. Wrestling power Japan, in fact, is vying for the right to host those 2020 Games, along with Istanbul and Madrid. The decision on the 2020 host will be made Sept. 7.

The barrier to entry for wrestling is low in terms of cost, which would seem to be a postive, and in recent competitions the wealth in terms of medals has been spread.

A total of 29 different countries accounted for wrestling medals in London. The number was 25 in Beijing, and 22 in both Athens and Sydney. The winners come from most of the continents, with African nations making progress in recent years, if not yet in podium results.

Calder said the scope of the wrestling competition is large, going against the recent IOC trend of streamlining. The world championships feature seven women's weight classes, for example, with just four in Olympic competition.

Ryan said the sport has made changes in the last 12 years to shorten matches and make the scoring system easier to understand for those who aren't diehard fans.

Wrestling would have to be on the short list in terms of the most fit group of Summer Olympic athletes, but currently the sport is no more problematic than others when it comes to doping.

The lone positive test of note from London was announced in November, when a Uzbek competitor was stripped of a bronze medal in the 74-kilogram freestyle class for use of methylhexaneamine, a banned stimulant.

The IOC, of course, has not been immune to politics and lobbying with respect to its decisions.

Given its stated criteria, It would be challenging to make as vigorous a defence of modern pentathlon, an oxymoron of sorts given that the sport tests the skills required of a 19th century cavalry officer — fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting. The sport's governing body includes Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs, son of the late former IOC president.

Modern pentathlon is rarely shown on television and doesn't have the global reach of wrestling. There were a total of 72 competitors in the modern pentathlon at the London Games, about a fifth of the wrestling total. The 24 medallists since 2000, when a women's competition was introduced, have come from 12 countries, with a heavy concentration in Eastern Europe.

Wrestling will be part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but Huynh said the number of wrestlers who will compete just for the love of the sport is finite.

"If we want this sport to grow in our country and across the world, there needs to be that [Olympic] exposure," she said.

The IOC will meet in May to ratify the decision. Wrestling officials will lobby, along with those with several other sports, for the one vacant spot for the 2020 Games. That final decision will be made until September.

"Hopefully this will bring on a surge of people who are willing to stand up for wrestling and recognize what a great Olympic sport it's been and is," said Calder.

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