February 12: One year since IOC recommended wrestling be removed from the Olympics

By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling | Feb. 12, 2014, 4:19 p.m. (ET)
“I am extremely proud of the way the wrestling community in the United States and around the World responded to the challenge. I believe we will look back on Feb. 12, 2013 as one of the most important days in our sport’s history. It was a renaissance for our sport that continues today.”

Rich Bender, Executive Director, USA Wrestling, on Feb. 12, 2014

For those involved in international wrestling, Feb. 12, 2013 is a day which has gone down in history.

Exactly one year ago today, the American wrestling community woke up early to the shocking news that the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee had announced that it recommended that wrestling, one of the original Olympic sports, be removed as a core sport from the Olympic program, beginning with the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

It is fair to say that this news was unexpected by the international wrestling community, and was also very surprising to many who are not involved in wrestling. The immediate question was: Why wrestling? The followup question, for those who appreciate the sport, was: What can be done about this?

The phones at USA Wrestling’s national headquarters rang off the hook, with inquiries not only from the international media, from wrestling leaders, and just fans who support wrestling. Everybody wanted to know more.

Step one was to find out more information, something very important in a crisis. USA Wrestling's Communications team went right to work. Craig Sesker handled media inquiries and made phone calls to get quotes from prominent athletes. Richard Immel started to design a special Facebook page focused on Saving Olympic Wrestling. Gary Abbott started to draft an official statement from USA Wrestling about the situation. The entire USA Wrestling staff sprung into action.

Executive Director Rich Bender set up a meeting with USOC CEO Scott Blackmun that morning, to share information, discuss the situation and begin to create a strategy. Former USOEC CEO and USA Wrestling Executive Director Jim Scherr was at the meeting, along with USOC Communications Chief Patrick Sandusky and USA Wrestling Director of Communications Gary Abbott. Key talking points came from this meeting.

Shortly after the USOC meeting ended, USA Wrestling issued the following statement:


USA Wrestling is surprised and disappointed about today’s announcement concerning the International Olympic Committee Executive Board recommendation that wrestling not be a core sport included in the 2020 Olympic Games.

Wrestling is one of the sports of the original Greek Olympic Games and in the first modern Olympic Games. It is one of the most diverse sports in the world, with nearly 200 nations from all continents participating in wrestling. It is an inclusive sport which provides opportunities worldwide, regardless of geography, race, gender or physical characteristics.

We look forward to telling the story about wrestling to the International Committee leadership and the entire world about our great sport and why it should be part of the Olympic movement forever.

USA Wrestling pledges to be a leader in the international effort to insure that wrestling remains on the Olympic program. As we continue our leadership in expanding wrestling within our nation, we also will place our full resources and energy behind supporting wrestling on the international level.

- Rich Bender
USA Wrestling Executive Director
February 12, 2013

Bender set up an important afternoon conference call, with key leaders from within the American wrestling community and business community. The group discussed the challenge facing international wrestling, and began to organize itself into a unified effort on behalf of the sport. Talking points were expanded and improved, which were shared with key stakeholders within the wrestling community. A key part of the discussion included creating a winning strategy to preserve wrestling on the Olympic program.

An emergency meeting with the entire USA Wrestling staff was set for early in the morning on Feb. 13 to discuss all operational aspects of the crisis. Bender and many others within the USA Wrestling family continued to field numerous calls from media, seeking comment on the new reality facing the world’s oldest sport.

February 12, 2013 was just the first day of an eight-month battle by international wrestling to remain an Olympic sport.

Changes at international wrestling federation FILA came quickly, with the resignation of then-FILA President Raphael Martinetti of Switzerland and the appointment of Nenad Lalovic of Serbia as the interim President before the first week was over. The conference calls held daily by USA Wrestling led to the formation of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW), the leadership group which spearheaded the American effort and chaired by Bill Scherr. The Keep Olympic Wrestling project quickly became a worldwide effort and cause, uniting wrestlers and supporters around the globe behind a single goal.

Key international wrestling events were held in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Niagara Falls in May, and later in July, a wrestling event was held on the historic grounds of ancient Olympia, Greece.

There are some key dates to note: Wrestling was selected among eight sports for consideration for the final extra-sport position in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. On May 18, at the FILA Extraordinary Congress in Moscow, Russia, Lalovic was elected FILA president, the rules were improved and the FILA Constitution changed to be make wrestling leadership more inclusive and democratic. On May 29, the IOC Executive Committee met in St. Petersburg, Russia and selected wrestling, squash and baseball/softball as the finalist candidates for the Olympic program. The final decision was made in St. Petersburg, Russia on September 8 in Buenos Aires, when the IOC General Assembly voted on the first ballot to name wrestling as the additional sport for the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games.

One year ago today, the worldwide wrestling community was challenged to prove to the world why the sport should remain in the Olympic Games. It is a day that will forever be etched in wrestling history.