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Grappling with the future: The story of how Olympic wrestling was saved

Jordan Burroughs at Rumble on the Rails
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

Grappling with the future: The story of how Olympic wrestling was saved

An oral history of the ancient sport's most important year

Wrestling is one of the oldest Olympic sports, dating all the way back to the Ancient Olympic Games held in Greece in 708 B.C. When the modern Olympics were founded in 1896, wrestling was, of course, one of nine sports on the program. It's been held at every Olympics since then, with the lone exception of the 1900 Games.

That's why it came as such a surprise when, in February 2013, headlines popped up everywhere stating that the sport had suddenly and unexpectedly been removed from the Olympics. There was shock and there was anger, but most of all, there was bewilderment. How could something like this happen? Could anything be done to reverse the decision?

What follows is an oral history of the "Keep Olympic Wrestling" movement that arose in the wake of the announcement. It chronicles the response of the wrestling community and how organizations across the world came together in unexpected ways and ultimately saved the sport.

 

Part I – The decision that shocked the world
In the months that followed the 2012 Olympics, it was time for FILA – the governing body of international wrestling (now known as United World Wrestling) – to begin planning for the future. FILA president Raphael Martinetti had formed a group led in part by Stan Dziedzic, a vice-president at FILA and a former American wrestler who had been world champion in 1977. The group was in charge of revising the rules, with Dziedzic specifically in charge of overseeing changes to freestyle wrestling.

STAN DZIEDZIC (Vice-president, FILA/United World Wrestling): We met in Budapest at Thanksgiving, and at that meeting, it became clear the constraints or the limitations that [Martinetti] had put on us on trying to create a more exciting set of rules that allowed the athletes to determine who was the best wrestler. His constraints were such that we didn't feel that we could develop a set of rules. So at that meeting, we were out to dinner, and [Mikhail] Mamiashvili came up to me, and he kind of pulled me aside and said, "You agree things are too authoritarian?" And I looked at him and I said, "Yeah, of course."

A short time after, Dziedzic received a call from Nenad Lalovic, a fellow bureau member with FILA who is from Serbia. Lalovic invited Dziedzic to a meeting that had been organized primarily by himself and Mamiashvili, a bureau member from Russia. Only certain bureau members were invited to attend.

DZIEDZIC: It was fortuitous that we had a group that caucused in Istanbul in December. Lalovic wasn't trying to make the meeting secretive, it was look, we needed to formulate and have this caucus so we could speak as one voice when we went to the [FILA] meeting in Thailand, which by chance happened to be scheduled, I think, five days after the IOC made the vote.

On Feb. 12, 2013, the IOC's executive board met in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, the board members were faced with a decision: They needed to remove one current sport from the Olympic program's group of "core sports," starting in 2020, in order to make way for a new one.

DZIEDZIC: Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling, had made a call to Dragomir [Cioroslan] from the USOC, and he said no, wrestling's not going to be that sport, it's going to be either taekwondo or it's going to be modern pentathlon.

Instead, the board voted to drop wrestling, one of the oldest Olympic sports. It was a decision that caught the wrestling world entirely by surprise.



IOC drops wrestling

On Feb. 12, 2013, IOC spokesman Mark Adams delivered the news that the executive board had voted to drop wrestling from the Olympics. Credit: Getty Images

JORDAN BURROUGHS (2012 Olympic gold medalist; 2016 U.S. Olympian): I was on my way to Iran for the [Freestyle] World Cup. We were actually in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. We were just hanging out, relaxing – we had a long layover – and we saw CNN or BBC was on the TV, and they were like, "Check out the next sport being cut from the Olympic Games." And we were like, "Oh man, we've gotta see what this is." And then – crazy – they're like "Wrestling!" We're like, "What?! No way! Absolutely no way."

ADELINE GRAY (Three-time world champion; 2016 U.S. Olympian): My sister called me and she was like, "Hey, you need to sit down… Wrestling got dropped from the Olympics." And I was like, "What?! How did that happen?"

HELEN MAROULIS (2015 world champion; 2016 U.S. Olympian): We were [heading to] the [Women's] World Cup, which was in Mongolia that year. And we were like, "No way, are you serious? This is crazy." I think we did see it on social media. It was right before our whole women's team got on the plane. And even on the plane, we're sitting there like, "Okay, brainstorm! What can we do now?"

BURROUGHS: It was crazy, we were just like, "What is happening?" We're overseas, we had no internet connection. All we could do was see the TV, so we didn't know who to call, who to talk to.

"Here we are, amazing athletes, doing our best to make Olympic teams and support our families, and we're gonna have that opportunity completely stripped away from us?"


Jordan Burroughs

MIKE NOVOGRATZ (Former spokesperson, CPOW; Chairman, Beat the Streets): I was in Switzerland on a business trip, so I found out before everyone else because of the time zone. I was literally 30 miles away from where the decision was being made, so I woke up and instantly called Rich Bender, USA Wrestling, and woke his ass up. I started working the phones a little bit, trying to find out what the F went on.

DZIEDZIC: When the IOC made the vote, actually my wife and I had landed in Bangkok, and we were in a cab when Bill Scherr1 calls me and says the IOC recommended to remove wrestling from the core sports in the Olympic program. And I said, "Hey Bill, what are you talking about? You mean the Greco-Roman discipline?" [He said], "No, the whole sport!"

NOVOGRATZ: I was on TV that day, I think I was on CNBC and Bloomberg talking about it. Made some boisterous statements like, "These guys really screwed up, you don't want to pick a fight with a bunch of wrestlers."

DZIEDZIC: Everyone was taken aback. I didn't even know the meeting was taking place. Almost everybody, if you would have said that that was going to happen, they would have said no, you don't have to worry.

BURROUGHS: We were having interview requests, people asking us how we felt about it. We kind of thought it was borderline… like, a joke. We were like, "What is going on right now?" But it was real.

 

Part II – The wrestling world reacts
The IOC's decision was a huge wake-up call to the entire wrestling community. It was clear that action needed to be taken quickly – not just from the top with FILA, but across the board. Wrestling would need to present a unified front for the next seven months. To that end, organizations immediately began to form around the world.

NOVOGRATZ: Somehow within 48 hours we had organized [the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW)] – my official role was the spokesperson on the committee, Bill Scherr ran it. And we had a great committee.

DZIEDZIC: I was getting calls from CPOW. The organization had began to gather some resources – expertise and financial – to say how we're going to try to dismantle this move to remove wrestling. Coincidentally – or maybe not coincidentally – but Russia had formed a group equally as [formidable], with as many resources if not more, and as quickly as CPOW was formed in the United States.

"We raised a decent amount of money, people were willing to give, people were kind of outraged."


Mike Novogratz

If there was a stroke of good luck in this ordeal, it was that – by sheer coincidence – a FILA meeting had been scheduled to take place in Phuket, Thailand just days after the IOC vote.

DZIEDZIC: It was pretty clear that to me, as it started unfolding, as I was getting advice from CPOW that I was talking to on a regular basis, that no matter what your thought was of Martinetti, you had to give the executive committee of the IOC some reason to unturn a decision when these decisions have never been unturned in the past.

In order to make progress, there first needed to be an overhaul in leadership at FILA.

DZIEDZIC: The night before, we met because the next day we were gonna have our official meeting. And [Martinetti] mentioned at that time that his first thought was, when he heard this, maybe this was the best time for him to move aside and spend more time with his grandchildren. And I think he was thinking that everybody would jump on, "Oh no, we can't be without you!" I got up and I used it as an opening, and I said, "Maybe your first inclination is the best one." I said it's not because I'm criticizing or in the past I questioned your amount of effort that you've put into this, but we're going to have to, in my estimation, come up with something very substantive, or we're not gonna be able to overturn this.

NOVOGRATZ: Thank God there was an event where they could have a no-confidence vote.

DZIEDZIC: We come to the meeting the next day once we have a quorum and Martinetti starts the meeting and says, "I want a vote of confidence." Now all of a sudden, I'm thinking he wants a vote of confidence because he knows he has enough votes. Even though it seemed to me to be impossible. So then I get up and just say, “Look, before we just do this rashly, let me make a suggestion.” At the time, they had not selected the site of the 2020 Games, and Japan and Turkey were two of the finalists. We had four vice presidents – one was from Japan, one was from Turkey, and then there was Matteo Pellicone from Italy and myself. So I made the suggestion that look, why don't Mr. Pellicone and myself also offer our resignation, and the three of us [Dziedzic, Pellicone and Martinetti] will form a group that in the interim will pass the baton to next group of leadership. But we'll allow Japan and Turkey to stay on the bureau because they're countries that are vying for the 2020 Olympic Games. And [Martinetti] didn't bite on that.

Expecting that he would get the votes he needed, Martinetti stuck to his original proposal: He would only offer his resignation if he lost the vote of confidence.

DZIEDZIC: So then [Martinetti] left the room, he turned the meeting over to Pellicone. And then he starts the vote, and there were people that I was not sure which way they would vote, but it was clear that they had caucused the night before. They had even arranged the seating assignments, so when we got the first 8 votes, it was like 7 votes for him and 1 against, and I'm thinking, ahhh! And I'm the last vote. Ahmet Ayik, the Turkish vice-president, he's next to me. And he won't look at me, and usually – not that we have a big conversation because he's not that fluent in English – but he's not looking at me and we're friends and we talk about things, and he's not looking at me, and I keep whispering, "Ahmet, you're not gonna vote for him! Ahmet, you can't do this! You can't!" Finally it comes down, and it ends up that Ahmet is the 10th vote [of no confidence], so now it's 10-10, and then it comes to me, and I vote. I'm the 11th vote, and we oust him 11-10.

"You had to give the executive committee of the IOC some reason to unturn a decision when these decisions have never been unturned in the past."


Stan Dziedzic

NOVOGRATZ: Here's what's crazy. [Martinetti] lost wrestling from the Olympics solely because of his personality, and he only got voted out 11-10. You're the CEO that just blew your company to [expletive] smithereens.

DZIEDZIC: It was sort of this big baggage all of a sudden was lifted.

NOVOGRATZ: It's really difficult to move these organizations, and so we did a really good job relative to the cards that are out there.

DZIEDZIC: There was an election, and we elected Lalovic to be the interim president. The question was whether I could run the organization, but to have an American as the face on this cause would be detrimental. So we agreed Lalovic would be the face of our movement, and he was the right person.

 

Part III – How did we get here?
With new leadership in place at FILA, the next task was to assess exactly what went wrong and determine what led to wrestling getting dropped from the Olympic program. From there, the group would need to formulate a plan moving forward to convince the IOC to reverse their initial decision, something they knew would not be a simple task.

BOB CONDRON (Former press communications officer, FILA): I got a call I'd say a week later, 10 days [after the IOC vote]. They asked me could I come help, and could I move to Switzerland in two days, and settle in to the federation office. So I said yep, I will. [I] Went up there and visited, and it was adrenaline from that point on for those eight months.

DZIEDZIC: It was clear I needed to go to Switzerland, and so USA Wrestling calls me and says Bob Condron, the media director for the USOC for 20-some years who just recently retired, is willing to supply his expertise in helping us, and he's willing to take on this challenge.

CONDRON: I was on an IOC commission for 10 years, so I knew the IOC pretty well. First thing that we did was to go to the IOC and we ended up talking with Christophe Dubi, who's now head of the Olympic Games. We met with him to find out what happened, what's the deal here.

"I think this hammered away, like a hammer hitting on a nail. After a while, it just sunk the ship."


Bob Condron

DZIEDZIC: We – Bob, Lalovic and myself – meet with Christophe. He said, “If someone had told me that wrestling would be the sport removed, I wouldn't have bet a penny.” But he said, “Now that it has happened, here are some of the reasons that people will give.” It stemmed around Martinetti's arrogance.

CONDRON: There's a lot of things that went into it, and he said, okay, in order to get the top 25 core sports – which was the whole goal of this thing in the first place – there was a questionnaire, a huge questionnaire. It talked about everything from performance issues to social media awareness to numbers on the website to attendance to TV viewership.

DZIEDZIC: He says, “I can't give you everybody's response here, but here, here's what wrestling had, and here's an example of what your problems are.”

CONDRON: It included a lot of stuff, and wrestling basically, I would call it, half-assed it as much as possible. To the point where the IOC almost had to step in and help fill in some blanks.

DZIEDZIC: The question is, "Please indicate the added value brought by your sport to the Olympic Games." And it can be a maximum of 1,200 characters. And wrestling's questionnaire was, "Wrestling is very important, as it is the oldest sport."

CONDRON: Like, it was described as, hey, we're wrestling, we don't have to do this.

DZIEDZIC: We [re-did] this document, which Christophe Dubi allowed us to do. When we answered that question about what our sport does for the Olympic Games, it centered around that the idea that we're the most egalitarian of all sports, or as close to a meritocracy as you're gonna get. There's no refined field, there's not any gloves, no rackets, no clubs, no balls. It's two equal-sized wrestlers on a mat armed with nothing but their technical skills and their wit and their will to win, and we determine who the best is.

CONDRON: Another thing, you know it wasn't like wrestling was located in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. They're one train stop away from [IOC headquarters in] Lausanne, and some of the guys in the IOC said [they'd] never met anybody from wrestling since [they'd] been here. There wasn't a real effort to have a relationship, to join the club and act like a member of the IOC, of the Olympic movement. I think it got to the point where the IOC executive committee got so tired of dealing with the sport that they just said okay, fine, that's the way you wanna be, you're not gonna be a core sport. I think this hammered away, like a hammer hitting on a nail. After a while, it just sunk the ship.

DZIEDZIC: I think there were several things that wrestling had to do. The first thing was governance – they had to agree to it, and it had to have a more transparent constitution. So Francois Carrard – he's probably, in my and maybe many people's minds, the best international sports lawyer – redrafted wrestling's constitution.

CONDRON: The IOC wants current athletes, which is basically within five years of competition, to be active in the federation. Well, that wasn't happening. Women, pretty much nonexistent in anything, any kind of leadership role, any kind of position of influence. [Lalovic] got some women on the bureau and in the leadership position.

TIM FOLEY (Media manager, FILA/United World Wrestling): Rodica Yaksi of Turkey was on the bureau, and so was Natalia Yariguina [of Russia]. But [Lalovic] fought for a permanent women's position, which was later filled by [Marina] Pellicone, and then also an athlete position on the board, which was also filled by a woman, Carol Huynh.

GRAY: Lalovic is huge. I think he really believes in women, I think he really believes in pushing the sport to be more relevant in the modern day and still be able to be so inclusive.

CONDRON: And participation, one of the first things Lalovic did was divide the events – Greco-Roman, freestyle and then women – he took one [weight class] each from [the men's disciplines] – it was 7, 7 and 4 – he took one each from Greco-Roman and [men's] freestyle and added two women's [weight classes], so it was 6, 6, 6.2

FOLEY: That was probably the biggest moment. I think also politically, it was the hardest thing that Lalovic had to do internally. A lot of these countries didn't want to see men's weight classes reduced. Lalovic knew that he had to make gender equity a big consideration.

GRAY: One of the greatest things that happened was that fact that we, as women, got two additional weight classes. It is obviously disappointing that we had to kind of lessen our men's field and take out a weight class from both Greco and [men's] freestyle. But at the same time, we did get the opportunity to win more medals for the women in Rio.

FOLEY: Lalovic is a brilliant politician. What he did, is he made it 6, 6, 6 for Olympics, but he made it 8, 8, 8 for the world championships. So now there was one more weight class three times out of every four years. And in the fourth year, they have a non-Olympic weight class world championships. He was able to show that we'll invest more in our sport here at the world championship level too, and I think that's what helped him out politically.

"A lot of these countries didn't want to see men's weight classes reduced. Lalovic knew that he had to make gender equity a big consideration."


Tim Foley

DZIEDZIC: The other thing that wrestling needed to do was change its rules.

CONDRON: Rules were hard to understand.

DZIEDZIC: For the freestyle rules, that was mostly my responsibility, but I don't want to say that any one of the rule changes was my idea. I was sort of an architect after I had all these building blocks, putting the rules together in a way that I think it met the transparency, the fairness to the athletes.

Dziedzic was again tasked with overhauling some of the much-maligned rules in freestyle wrestling, this time with much more freedom than he had been given by the old regime.

DZIEDZIC: Of course I always would have a conversation with Dan Gable. I always knew that talking to him, you would get a straight answer, and it would be a thoughtful answer, and it wouldn't be that, oh yeah, this is the way it's gotta be. It would be, if we do this, here's the potential outcome and some of the unforeseen consequences. And he would be as astute as anyone about those discussions.

Gable was just one of many wrestling icons consulted by Dziedzic.3

DZIEDZIC: Even before the vote of the IOC, I had asked the personnel at FILA's headquarters to send a communiqué to every one of the national federations and ask them to convene a group of their most thoughtful wrestlers and come back with not ideas to change, but a whole set of rules. Come up with a set of rules that makes sense. And very few did that, by the way. It really ended up more of me soliciting ideas from different people, but I was surprised at occasionally how many ideas I would get from people just unsolicited – just send an idea, and it would make sense. I think there were a few things that you could establish right away.

KYLE SNYDER (2015 world champion; 2016 U.S. Olympian): I love the new rule changes. I think it's better suited for my style, and it's better suited for the audience to have more fun while they're watching. I think it makes more action happen.

DZIEDZIC: We used to have the best-of-three matches, with a ball pull and a 30-second clinch if the matches were tied.4 So I think there was this agreement that we needed to go back to cumulative score. We needed to go back to set number of periods, and we needed to eliminate the ball pull and the clinch. I think the IOC looks at those as too much of an element of luck. They don't mind to have some chance, but luck should never be part of the outcome of any of the matches.

SNYDER: The old scheme with the clinch, I think a lot of people were just wrestling to get to that clinch. But now there is no clinch. You've gotta score points to win the match, which is exciting.

CONDRON: The athletes like the active part of the rule changes. It kind of rewards the aggressor, penalizes the staller, makes it more exciting. [From] three periods to two longer ones, a lot of the guys said it gives you more time to set up what you're gonna do. And it rewards the guy in shape, and it rewards the aggressor. I'd say 95% of the guys love it.

GRAY: This is the first kind of major change that I went through as an athlete on the Olympic stage. I feel like they looked at my wrestling, and they're like, "How can we make Adeline great at wrestling?" And all of a sudden, it was like, "Oh! We want to make it cumulative scoring, we'll make the period a little bit longer, we want to do this, this and this." I have a couple techniques that I've been able to really put into works that end up ending matches a lot sooner, and I'm loving these new rules. I think it's a faster pace too, which is great.

SNYDER: I think it suits my style really well, because I have a pretty good gas tank, and I can wrestle for a long time. So six minutes really isn't a problem. It gives me time to attack early, attack often, and then usually I wear guys out by the end of the match.

It was around this time that FILA's new interim president had his first opportunity to meet with some powerful IOC members, including current president Thomas Bach and then-president Jacques Rogge. Gaining their support and enabling them to put a face to wrestling's new movement would be pivotal in the process.

DZIEDZIC: Next day [after meeting with Dubi] the meeting was with Jacques Rogge. Lalovic felt that would be good for him to go with Jacques Rogge, and by coincidence –he said, "Look, not only can I speak French with Jacques, I can speak French with a Belgian accent." So he felt very comfortable, and by chance, Jacques Rogge was a doctor. Jacques Rogge had Nenad Lalovic's uncle as a professor at the university. So there were a lot of things that they could talk about, and they got along very well, and that was a necessary step.

 

Part IV – International unity
Now armed with knowledge of the sport's past failings, FILA began to implement widespread changes to begin rectifying the issues that had been addressed by the IOC. Meanwhile, other organizations around the world – including CPOW in the United States and a similar organization in Russia – began working in sync to help however they could.

DZIEDZIC: After Bob and I and Lalovic met [with the IOC] in Lausanne, at the same time, that's where the Russian executive director, he came in to Switzerland. And we – the three of us with Lalovic – sat down and [decided] who's doing what, and [agreed] that we need to get a strategy group in place.

NOVOGRATZ: I think we [CPOW and the United States] probably have a quarter of the voice – Russia's got a quarter, and everyone else has the other half. I mean, I'm just guessing. We're certainly influential.

DZIEDZIC: This was an amazing coincidence because in Thailand – just turning the clock back several days after the IOC vote – both CPOW and the corresponding group in Russia wanted the same strategy group to help wrestling: Teneo.

"The sport really transcends politics. I think that's important for a lot of people to know and understand."


Jordan Burroughs

Teneo Sports, a strategy agency run by Terrence Burns, was seen as the logical choice by both countries. Burns, a veteran marketer, had previously worked on a number of successful Olympic host city bids.

DZIEDZIC: [Burns] had handled Sochi's bid for the Olympics, so the Russians wanted the same. They're doing their research, and CPOW is back in the United States doing its research, and they both come up in the matter of two days' time and agree this is the strategy group we should hire. So that was a great starting point to think that Russia and the United States would be so aligned in this effort.

GRAY: I've never seen a sport come together like wrestling did to get the momentum and get us put back into the Olympics and really just get that idea that wrestling deserves to be in the Olympics as a core sport back in people's minds.

DZIEDZIC: It transcended, I think, so much of the political ideology that you have. So many unusual partners in this event. I mean, when else in history do you have then-president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad of Iran standing next to the coach of USA Wrestling?



Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jordan Burroughs

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran in 2013, took photos with Jordan Burroughs and the U.S. wrestling team while they were in Tehran for the Freestyle World Cup. Credit: Getty Images

In March, CPOW and USA Wrestling began spearheading a campaign called "2020 Vision." The marketing initiative was aimed at raising awareness of wrestling's plight and raising funds to counter it.

GRAY: My job was to train and to kind of hope that my world was being kept safe by USA Wrestling. I know they had a lot of people on that team that did great work.

NOVOGRATZ: There was a lot of pressure, and it was about a five-month campaign. We raised a decent amount of money, people were willing to give, people were kind of outraged.

GRAY: It was awesome to see the response, from obviously wrestlers, but also everybody. Seeing people who have never even considered thinking about wrestling being like, "Wrestling should be in the Olympics!" And just hearing that really solidified in my mind that this sport deserved to be there.

NOVOGRATZ: We [CPOW] had conference calls every week. If I'd miss a call, I'd literally get a call from Dan Gable: [imitates yelling]. Gable was kind of the lifeblood of the spirit of how you just can't leave any stone unturned: ‘Til we win, we don't win.

The movement to save Olympic wrestling was well underway, but it wasn't until May that the tide really began to turn. It would go down as the most important month in the entire movement.

CONDRON: Another thing that came up was World Wrestling Month. And it was May of that year.

FOLEY: We did a social media campaign that kind of took off for us. It was hashtag #TakeAStance. We had something like 10,000 photos sent in – people all around the world taking a stance for wrestling. They would take photos of themselves in a wrestling stance and send it in or tag it.

CONDRON: We got pictures from Mount Everest, from the Eiffel Tower, from all around the world. Kids in places you've never heard of. I think Japan sent in, like, close to a million signatures [on a petition to reinstate the sport] to the wrestling headquarters in Switzerland. So the month of May was critical because everybody just for the whole month, we had an event in every country just about. There were stories every day about something happening. I mean, we wouldn't even instigate nine-tenths of them. It just came from happenings around the world.

On May 15, 2013, the most notable event of the movement took place when wrestlers from three countries participated in "Rumble on the Rails" at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.



Rumble on the Rails

Grand Central Terminal in New York City provided the setting for one of the most important events of the movement to save Olympic wrestling. Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

NOVOGRATZ: Rumble on the Rails was my idea of like, saying all right, let's kind of throw the bird to the world a little bit and say hey, this is what wrestling can do.

MAROULIS: The Rumble on the Rails was just this incredible event where you had Russia, Iran and the USA, and it was just to show that wrestling really brings countries together and citizenship, sportsmanship – it was pretty powerful.

BURROUGHS: Really, we just needed to show the world that we had good product.



USA at Rumble on the Rails

The United States was just one of three countries participating in Rumble on the Rails... Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports



Russia at Rumble on the Rails

...Russia was there too... Credit: Joe Camporeale//USA TODAY Sports



Iran at Rumble on the Rails

...and so was Iran. Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

MAROULIS: They had done the "Beat the Streets," which is a fundraiser for the kid's program, in New York. They'd done that the past two or three years, and in 2012, they also had an Olympic Trials wrestle-off. And then 2013, they said hey, we gotta get wrestling back in the Olympics, so this is the focus.

NOVOGRATZ:  We thought, let's do something different than Times Square. Times Square was under construction at that point.

BURROUGHS: Rumble on the Rails was huge. I think, to get the American fans pumped up about competition – world competition – and let them realize and recognize that listen, wrestling is one of the original sports in the Olympic Games. It's one of the first. Here we are, amazing athletes, doing our best to make Olympic teams and support our families, and we're gonna have that opportunity completely stripped away from us? Like, we've gotta do something, we've gotta band together.

MAROULIS: Oh, it was so powerful, because there were fans from each country, and I think everyone had the sense of, you know, we don't know what's going to happen, so all we can do is cheer and show our support in this moment. It was like this bond, where you looked at your opponent but you knew they want the same thing as you. This time, it wasn't just about getting your hand raised [as the winner of the match], it was also like, "I want to work together with you to get this sport back in the Olympics."



Helen Maroulis at Rumble on the Rails

Helen Maroulis wrestles with her Russian opponent, Irina Kisel, during the 2013 "Rumble on the Rails" event. Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

NOVOGRATZ: We had Iran, Russia, and U.S. at the [United Nations] in this press conference, all hugging. I was like, "I don't think the Russian Empire has ever hugged in the U.N." So that was awesome. When I look back on the things I've participated in, that's one of my favorites.

BURROUGHS: The sport really transcends politics. I think that's important for a lot of people to know and understand. Because at this point, while our governments may be in turmoil, for us, we have the commonality of putting a lot of hard work into the sport, making a lot of sacrifices and competing at a high level. So we each respect each other and appreciate the hard work and the sacrifices that we've made.

KYLE SNYDER: Yeah, there are countries that you normally don't see hanging out and competing together and cooperating together even. And I think wrestling brings those countries together because of the bond that the sport has. It allows people to break down barriers, and I think everyone saw that with the cooperation in bringing wrestling back, and us competing in their countries and them coming over here to compete in the United States.



Jordan Burroughs at Rumble on the Rails

Jordan Burroughs participates in Rumble on the Rails, a competition that ended up being one of the most important events in wrestling's fight to get back into the Olympics. Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

BURROUGHS: It got to the forefront of the public media. People recognized it, and they were upset about it. They fought for us.

NOVOGRATZ: My favorite story of that… The Iranian ambassador of the U.N. was coming in and he needed to get frisked, and he didn't want to get frisked. But there was this big guy whose job was to frisk everybody. He didn't know who I was, he was like, I gotta frisk him. I finally was able to use body language to say, dude, he's with me, I'm running the event, he's coming in. And so the Iranian ambassador was kind of upset. After Iran kicked our ass, the guy comes up, he's hugging me like I'm his brother – kiss, kiss, kiss – they do the three kisses in Iran, not the two kisses. It was funny, it was like how sports can instantly kind of bring you together, especially if you beat the other guy.



Rumble on the Rails

United States. Russia. Iran. All united on the mat for at least one day, Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

While CPOW members were active in the United States, the equivalent organization in Russia found their own way to contribute to the movement.

DZIEDZIC: Where [the Russian organization] thought they could help, they helped immensely in hosting the extraordinary congress that we had to hold to establish that Lalovic was not the interim, but the permanent president, and at the same time get approval from the congress on what rules we were going to introduce immediately. To put this together in so short order, I mean here we have this meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow. FILA pays the airfare for all the federations that are members – so Uruguay, and Chile, and everywhere around the world – they pay the airfare. The Russians pick up and get housing for all of the members of the congress [over 100 total] at the Hilton. And then we had the meeting at the Ritz-Carlton. For them to organize that – it had a hefty cost, I'm sure – in such a short order was indicative of their commitment to maintaining wrestling in the Olympic program.

On May 18, 2013 – just a few days after "Rumble on the Rails – FILA's extraordinary congress took place in Moscow.

DZIEDZIC: Once we established these rules that we knew were going to be better rules, we still had not had any congress to approve that, and there we were now in May, and the world championship was in September, so a lot of people were of the opinion that no, let's just use them in some tournaments and then put them in place later. My argument was that no, we couldn't wait. We had told the IOC that we were gonna make these changes, we need to make them now, and I'm confident that these rules are the right rules.

CONDRON: That was the turning point. And it was one of the turning points where for the first time in maybe history that the media were invited to the party. I said, we're gonna do good stuff, it needs to be covered. So the word went out that hey, changes are happening. So that kind of started it.

By a vote of 125-7, Lalovic was officially elected president of FILA at the extraordinary congress. The proposed new rule changes for freestyle and Greco-Roman were also approved at the meeting. The changes were implemented just in time for another key IOC vote.

CONDRON: It ended up, there were seven other sports trying to get on the program. So we became the eighth. Which almost became a nightmare for the other seven.

On May 29, 2013, the IOC executive board convened in St. Petersburg, Russia to hear from the eight sports trying to get on the Olympic program. At the end of the presentations, a vote was held.

DZIEDZIC: The first vote was whittling the eight down to three. The three were the combination of women's softball and baseball, squash and wrestling.

Those three sports would move on to the final round of voting, which was scheduled for September. In the meantime, efforts to save Olympic wrestling continued around the world.



Kurt Angle supports the movement to save Olympic wrestling

Kurt Angle, 1996 Olympic gold medalist and former WWE superstar, was one of many celebrities who supported the movement to save Olympic wrestling. Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

On May 31, 2016, Canada hosted a women's wrestling event, dubbed "Battle at the Falls," at Niagara Falls. Wrestlers from Canada, the U.S. and Ukraine participated.

Then in July, the sport returned to its roots when more than 100 wrestlers – including Maroulis – descended upon the Ancient Olympia in Greece. A tournament took place at a venue near the site of the ancient Olympic stadium that hosted wrestling matches thousands of years ago, and a ceremony – which included taking part of the soil, placing it in an urn and having it relayed by athletes – was also held that weekend, with video from that ceremony later being used by FILA as part of its case to the IOC.

It all led up to one climactic moment, nearly seven full months after the journey started.

 

Part V – The decision that saved a sport
On Sept. 8, 2013, a special meeting was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. All three sports being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Games were invited to deliver pitches to the IOC before the final vote was cast. Wrestling's delegation included members of FILA, an eclectic group of presenters and passionate supporters. Even Hollywood actor and former college wrestler Billy Baldwin was in attendance.

It was here that the fate of wrestling would be decided once and for all.

CONDRON: We ended up in Buenos Aires, Argentina in September of that year to get back in the program. Basically the same group that voted the sport out had to vote wrestling back.

DZIEDZIC: [Burns] did a fabulous job with organizing the presenters for Argentina, which were Jim Scherr5, Carol Huhyn6, Daniel Igali, Lise LeGrand7, and Lalovic.



Jim Scherr presents to the IOC

Jim Scherr presents to the IOC in Buenos Aires, while fellow presenters Nenad Lalovic, Lise Legrand, Daniel Igali and Carol Huynh look on. Credit: Getty Images

FOLEY: The major theme was that wrestling presents opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn't have it. It's a sport of incredible social mobility where someone who has nothing can be dirt-poor and just needs a pair of [wrestling] shoes.

DZIEDZIC: All very impressive people. The whole was much greater than the individual parts of how they fit in and their background and their reasoning and what the sport had done for them.

FOLEY: Igali's presentation was pretty incredible. He spoke about being one of 20 children in a family growing up in Nigeria, and the reason he got into wrestling was because he wanted to ride in an airplane. And they told him that if he did well, he could travel places, and he'd never been on an airplane, so that's what he wanted to do.

DZIEDZIC: I can't remember how many children he was one of, but he said, "Of course I know how to wrestle, or else I wouldn't be able to eat. We had to wrestle every day at dinner!"

FOLEY: He ended up wrestling, winning the gold medal for Canada some years later.8 He told his personal journey. His presentation, better than any politician you've ever heard speak, he connected with the room. It was probably the most special moment of the entire thing.

DZIEDZIC: Lise LeGrand was good, and of course Jim brought the professional leadership and familiarity [with] the IOC because he ran the USOC for so long. So it was a good group.

CONDRON: The presentation was awesome. But it was for all of [the sports]. All the sports put their best foot forward.

DZIEDZIC: The people who had represented baseball and women's softball – they had an impressive group in their presentation. Castro's son was one of their presenters, so they had a good mixture, not just American, but the Japanese and the Caribbean Islands and the Americans.9

CONDRON: I think [the wrestling delegation] was hopeful. I think hopeful, [yes], but confident, no. I don't think the group felt we were a lock at all.

FOLEY: People were sort of cautious but very optimistic.

"I've lived at the Olympic Training Center for seven years now and that would have been gone, my home would have been gone, my dream would have been gone."


Adeline Gray

After each of the three sports delivered their presentations, it was time for the entire IOC general assembly to vote for the one sport that would make the cut.

CONDRON: All of a sudden, it was quick. We thought it would take a long time, and it was boom, it was done.

BURROUGHS: I was at home. My wife and I, we were in bed – I'll never forget – we were in bed, we had pulled it up on our cell phone, we were watching the live stream.

SNYDER: I watched it live. I was in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center, and I watched it live. They had a feed.

MAROULIS: We went to USA Wrestling headquarters, and we sat and watched the video.

GRAY: I was at USA Wrestling, and they brought us in to hear the announcement.

MAROULIS: I remember thinking the night before, there's no way they're not gonna choose wrestling. I know the work that all of our organizations around the world have put into this, there's just no way. But then I remember five minutes before it started, it really set in that this is out of my hands, this is out of all of our control.

GRAY: It was a little scary at first.

MAROULIS: It was really nerve-wracking to just sit and watch.

GRAY: It definitely was like, "Oh man, what are we gonna do if we're out? What do we do? Is this facility gonna be here? Is my training room?" I've lived at the Olympic Training Center for seven years now and that would have been gone, my home would have been gone, my dream would have been gone. I would have had no funding, I would have had no training. I've dedicated so much of my life to winning an Olympic gold medal; to take that away from me would have been very disappointing.

"Five minutes before it started, it really set in that this is out of my hands, this is out of all of our control."


Helen Maroulis

MAROULIS: I remember thinking, if 2016 is my last opportunity for the Olympics, that's going to be so sad. Really mostly for other girls and guys that won't ever have that opportunity. Right before, I'm like, "Ah come on, just please!" That's it… I'm like, "Please! Put wrestling back in!"

BURROUGHS: Had we been removed, I would have had to find a new job.

CONDRON: When they said they were ready to [tell] us if we were in, I said we were the only ones who could be first ballot.

MAROULIS: They announced it got back in, and everyone's cheering, and it was just such a cool moment.

SNYDER: Celebration. It was a celebration. There were a lot of wrestlers around at the USA Wrestling building and it was a celebration to be able to be with them, and there were other competitors too whose goals were to wrestle at the Olympics and compete for their country. I was happy to see it for myself and for them.

BURROUGHS: It was awesome. We were pumped.

GRAY: It was great to be there for that moment and just to know that we deserve to be in the Olympics. Wrestling is such an iconic sport, and to have us taken out of the Olympics would've just been a shame.



Billy Baldwin and Nenad Lalovic

Even Billy Baldwin was there in Buenos Aires to celebrate with Nenad Lalovic. Credit: Getty Images

The IOC's decision assured wrestling a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games. As for beyond that, most people believe that the sport's position is secure thanks to the changes that were made to improve the product, as well as the international outcry after it was first dropped from the list of core sports.

But things could have had a much different outcome. Had the entire wrestling world not been in lockstep during that seven-month period in 2013, dreams of wrestlers around the world – not just the current crop of Olympians, but all the young hopefuls training for 2020 and beyond – would have crumbled. For a sport like wrestling, missing out on the Olympics was something it ultimately may not have been able to survive.

CONDRON: We were one of the sports that our pinnacle was an Olympic gold medal. That announcement saved the sport.

BURROUGHS: We had to do a lot of work to make sure it remained in the Olympic Games. Tough times, but we're back.

 

Editor's note: Some of the above passages have been edited or condensed for clarity.

 

Footnotes

1. Bill Scherr chaired the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling (CPOW), which was formed on Feb. 14, 2013. He competed for the U.S. at the 1988 Olympics, alongside twin brother Jim, and won a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling. Prior to the formation of CPOW, he had worked on the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid and had served on USA Wrestling's board of directors. [Back to article]

2. The proposed changes to the Olympic weight classes were officially approved by the IOC on Aug. 9, 2013. They will be used for the first time at the Rio Games. [Back to article]

3. Among the other former athletes that Dziedzic also solicited input from: Bruce Baumgartner (four-time Olympic medalist, United States), John Smith (two-time Olympic gold medalist, United States), Sergei Beloglazov (two-time Olympic gold medalist, Soviet Union), Hideaki Tomiyama (1984 Olympic gold medalist, Japan), Valentin Jordanov (1996 Olympic gold medalist, Bulgaria) and Arsen Fadzaev (two-time Olympic gold medalist, Soviet Union/Unified Team). Also playing key roles were Russian coach Yuri Shakmuradov and referees Ibrahim Cicioglu (Turkey), Antonio Silvestri (Germany) and Zach Errett (United States). [Back to article]

4. Under the old freestyle rules, the "ball pull and clinch" was used to determine the winner of a period that ended in a scoreless tie. The official would have a bag containing two balls – one red and one blue, each corresponding to one of the wrestlers. The ball pulled randomly from the bag by the official would determine which wrestler got the choice of starting the 30-second overtime in either the offensive or defensive position. The "clinch" was the hold that the offensive wrestler would have on their opponent to start the overtime. The offensive wrestler would then have 30 seconds to score a point on the defensive wrestler, with the outcome determining the winner of the period. [Back to article]

5. Jim Scherr served as CEO of the USOC from 2005-2009. He competed for the U.S. in freestyle wrestling at the 1988 Olympics and was also one of the founding members of CPOW. [Back to article]

6. Carol Huynh competed for Canada at two Olympics, winning gold in 2008 and bronze in 2012. She is currently the chair of the athlete's commission within UWW and is also a member of the coaching staff for the Canadian women's team. [Back to article]

7. Lise LeGrand is the vice president of the French Wrestling Federation. She competed for France at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, winning bronze in 2008. [Back to article]

8. Daniel Igali won an Olympic title in 2000, becoming Canada's first-ever gold medal winner in wrestling. [Back to article]

9. Baseball/softball would later be added to the 2020 Tokyo Games as part of a five-sport package approved by the IOC on Aug. 3, 2016. [Back to article]

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