Why Wrestling’s Rejection Matters

Olympic wrestling’s last showcase will be in Rio in 2016, after which it will become another ex-Games sport a la baseball and softball.

The IOC yesterday decided to drop the ancient sport after it received low scores for TV ratings, global popularity, media coverage, and attendance at the London Olympics. Fourteen IOC board members arrived at that conclusion after four rounds of voting, each of which pared the list of sports on the chopping block.

In the final vote wrestling “won” over field hockey and modern pentathlon, which many had expected to be dropped. Taekwondo and canoe kayaking were spared in the previous round according to the Associated Press.

Water polo’s absence from those lists will provide some comfort to its fans and athletes. But wrestling’s Olympic demise is also a vivid reminder of water polo’s immense vulnerability.

The IOC didn’t cut water polo. It appears it didn’t even much consider it. But it could have. And if it did, it would have been catastrophic.

Think not? Spend a moment imagining the ramifications.

To start, the NCAA is already on a trajectory toward becoming a revenue-sports management organization (assuming it doesn’t implode completely). Men’s water polo constantly hovers around the 40-program threshold for NCAA sponsorship. Does anyone believe our friends in Indianapolis would hesitate a moment to drop the sport if the IOC did the same? Do we even need to hint at what that would do to participation numbers?

And consider a very basic motivation: the US is mad about the Olympics. They hold their own mystique among American sports fans, captivate giant TV audiences, showcase nutty sports like badminton, trampoline…and water polo. They’re unique in their capacity to make a kid say, “I want to do that.”

Safe to say, the FINA Cup doesn’t have the same effect.

But water polo is the longest standing team sport in the Games, so it’s safe, isn’t it?

Wrestling has been a part of the Olympics since 708. Not 1708. 708…B.C. That’s approaching 3000 years. Apparently it wasn’t enough time to solidify its place on the Olympic roster.

And if you think there’s a mob at the ready to defend our sport, try this: before the subject cools down (it won’t take long), search Twitter for “water polo” and count the suggestions that they cut our sport in place of wrestling — or don’t if you’re squeamish.

With moneyed and popular games like golf and baseball barging in to the Olympics, history and passion are not enough to keep water polo (or many other sports) safe. “Streamlining,” as the IOC puts it, may make perfect business sense from a distance. But Jason Gay’s assessment rings more true for us fans: “…the IOC’s decision feels like another money-driven shin-kick to the idea of what makes the Olympics the Olympics.”

Thus the burgeoning support for wrestling from non-wrestling fans. Not for some re-discovered love of the sport, but because they understand: we could be next.

Says Gay:

This is about what it means for an athlete you’ve never heard of [spending] a whole career for one chance to represent country and try to live forever. This is why wrestlers will fight this decision. Because they’re exactly what the Olympics are supposed to be about.

Sound familiar?