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Wrestling: Keeping Olympic Dreams Alive

By Doug Williams | March 01, 2013, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

Coleman Scott after winning the bronze medal at the London
2012 Olympic Games in the men's freestyle 60 kg on Aug. 11, 2012

On his way to the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, American Coleman Scott wrestled athletes from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Japan and Korea.

The former NCAA champion from Oklahoma State held nothing back, often excelling late in matches to fulfill his Olympic dream. As his high school coach once said, “I never count him out until the final buzzer.”

Now, however, with the future of wrestling in the Olympic Games in doubt, Scott is focusing his competitive zeal not on an opponent, but on helping his sport. Wrestling may have taken a fall, but it hasn’t been conquered.

Scott is standing shoulder to shoulder with the athletes he tried to pin in London — and an estimated 6 million wrestlers from nearly 180 nations worldwide — to keep the dreams of future wrestlers alive. He is speaking out and raising awareness of what’s going on in his sport.

“Those kids are the ones that have to have that dream,” he said Thursday. “You capture that dream of being an Olympic champion at a young age. I know I did when I was about 10 years old, just by watching the Olympics.”

Since an International Olympic Committee vote on Feb. 12 recommended that wrestling be removed as a core sport — which would eliminate it from the Games as of 2020 if it doesn’t receive support in two crucial votes later this year — Scott has heard from young wrestlers in particular that wrestling must be saved.

The IOC executive board will meet May 24-27 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to hear presentations from the following sports: baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, squash, sport climbing, wakeboard, wushu and wrestling. Up to three of those sports will move forward for final consideration at the IOC’s General Session Sept. 4-7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“They’ve all told me personally how much it’s affected them,” Scott said. “It’s nice to see that. It’s not just the elite group. It’s the whole. That’s the thing with the wrestling community. From the top to the bottom we’re on the same page and we’re going to go at this thing together.”

Scott was speaking on a USA Wrestling conference call with the national media as part of a campaign in the U.S. to marshal forces to keep the sport in the Games. Rich Bender, executive director of USA wrestling, and Jim Scherr, former CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee — who now is working with FILA, the international governing body for wrestling on this push — also spoke about its efforts.

USA Wrestling has set up a website, keepwrestlingintheolympics.com, as a forum to spread information about the movement and rally support and raise funds for the fight.
Both Scherr and Bender noted the quest will need to involve raising awareness, making some changes to the sport itself that could make it more popular and spreading the word to the IOC about the positives of wrestling — a sport that was part of the ancient Greek Olympics and has been in every modern Games but one since 1896.

Bender pointed to a meeting he attended in Iran last week concurrently with the freestyle World Cup in which wrestling officials from around the world met to discuss strategies for keeping the sport in the Games. It was encouraging, he said, to see how nations have come together and how athletes — even from nations whose governments are at odds — showed respect and solidarity.

It showed the value of wrestling as a sport, Bender said, and why it should continue to be part of the Games.

Coleman Scott in action against Lee Seungchul of Korea in
the men's freestyle 60kg qualification match at he London 2012
Olympic Games.

The values of our sport are obvious,” he said. “You talk about the relationships that we’ve been able to build amongst countries that maybe have some political differences, like Iran and Russia, are two great examples of where the sport has really provided an opportunity to better mankind. We’ll continue to tell that story.”

Bender said the “universality of wrestling is really second to none.”

“If you look back to the results of the Olympic Games and you look at the number of countries that won medals in our sport … it puts us No. 2 behind only track and field.”

The success of the U.S. participation in the recent event in Iran — in which U.S. wrestlers were cheered by Iranian fans — could be a model for other events held over the next few months globally to demonstrate the sport’s power, Bender said.

“There are some large-scale ideas in the works,” he said in response to rumors of pending events. “And certainly we’ve had communications with not only the Iranians but the Russians and several other wrestling nations of the world on opportunities and events that can really help our cause.

“Anything specific would be a little bit premature at this point, but certainly there are some large-scale plans and ideas that will really showcase our sport on a pretty cool level.”

What, specifically, are the things that Scherr and Bender believe must be done?

    • Get the message out about the value of the sport in relation to Olympic ideals, such as inclusion, diversity and improving global relationships through athletic competition;

    • Make changes to the rules of freestyle and Greco-Roman that would make scoring more understandable for average viewers. Scherr said FILA already is considering possible changes. Nenad Lalovic, FILA’s new interim president, recently said some of the sport’s scoring rules instituted in recent decades have made it too much of a “sport for experts” and said the rules must be clearer;

    • Make changes within FILA to leadership (one of which is Lalovic’s ascension) and goals to bring it more in line with what the IOC desires;

    • Find ways to increase revenues and sponsorships.

In a way, it’s hard for FILA and U.S. wrestling organizations to target other specific actions because the IOC, in taking its action, did not specify its reasons.

Bender said the website, keepwrestlingintheolympics.com, will be a spot to “aggregate the entire wrestling community” so that when there are specific actions to be taken, supporters of the sport can easily find the information.

“For years we called the wrestling family the silent army, and it’s time for that army to be silent no more,” Bender said.

Scherr acknowledges wrestling faces a fight, but he is optimistic. If wrestling can get support at a vote of the IOC’s executive board in May and then a second vote in Buenos Aires in September by IOC members, it officially will be a core sport again.

But Scherr said, wrestlers and wrestling organizations in the U.S. and internationally need to be proactive to make certain FILA is a “good member of the worldwide Olympic family.”

“FILA sometimes hasn’t done as good a job as it could have integrating itself to the worldwide movement and president Lalovic and the current leadership of FILA will move quickly to rectify that. … It’s difficult to gauge how uphill this battle is. I think it’s a major challenge for the sport.

“By no means is there any win or easy victory here. But I think that from what I’ve heard from people connected to the IOC that there is a path here for wrestling. Wrestling can remain on the program but will have to work hard to do so. We’re optimistic.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.