Medal-winning wrestlers go to mat to keep sport in Olympic Games

Medal-winning wrestlers are in Washington this week trying to garner support for keeping their sport in the Olympics.

The athletes are working to raise awareness about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board’s recommendation that wrestling be removed as a “core sport” from the games beginning in 2020.

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Wrestling will now vie with seven other sports, including karate and squash, to be listed as official Olympic sports in 2020.

The Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling is trying to make a splash with a reception on Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., that will feature legendary wrestlers from U.S. Olympics history.

In attendance will be Rulon Gardner, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling; Henry Cejudo, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling; and Clarissa Chun, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling.

“We need to raise awareness. We need to raise volunteers. We need to raise funding. We want support from everyone in the United States, including Congress,” said Bill Scherr, chairman of the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling.

Scherr, who won a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling during the 1988 Olympics, said the group would be meeting with USAID officials as well.

“We are here to tell these folks why wrestling is important to the world. It can have such a positive impact on gender equity as well as the right to play sports, whether you were born on the North Side of Chicago or sub-Saharan Africa,” Scherr said.

Officials from the State Department and Washington embassies are expected to attend the Thursday reception.

The wrestlers have also been talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where there has been an outpouring of support for wrestling as an Olympic sport. Members have drafted congressional resolutions and written a number of letters to the Olympic headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, urging the committee to reconsider.

“We write to express our disappointment with the recent move by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that endangers the inclusion of wrestling as an Olympic Sport in the 2020 Olympic Games. We strongly encourage the IOC to reconsider this choice and vote to continue the inclusion of the sport,” reads a March 21 letter to Dr. Jacques Rogge, the IOC president.

Signing onto that letter was Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), as well as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Steve King (R-Iowa), Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.).

In the letter, the lawmakers note how popular wrestling is in the U.S., with nearly 300,000 high-school wrestlers as well as 79 Division I colleges having programs. 

If wrestling is pulled from the games, the sport could lose prestige and the support of governments around the world, according to Scherr.

“If we are out of the Olympic games, we could lose support, we could lose funding,” Scherr said.  

Lawmakers from the Midwest, which has a strong wrestling tradition, have been particularly vocal about keeping the sport in the games.

Iowa’s congressional delegation, along with the state’s governor and lieutenant governor, sent a letter to Rogge in February protesting the decision. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) sent a separate letter to Rogge, citing Iowa wrestling legends Frank Gotch, Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson.

In March, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a resolution from Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and others decrying the IOC move.

“Wrestling has been part of the Olympics as long as there have been Olympics, going back to Athens,” Grassley said in a statement in The Hill. “So, why take a tradition and a beloved sport out of the Olympic games? Will the marathon be next?”

There is a similar resolution pending in the House that now has 45 co-sponsors. Loebsack said soon after the IOC decision, he approached Jordan, twice a NCAA wrestling champion, about how to respond, and drafted the measure shortly thereafter. 

Loebsack, who is the House resolution’s main sponsor, is pushing hard for its passage.

“Clearly this is something that is very upsetting. It’s one of the world sports. It has appeared both in the ancient Greek games and the first modern Olympic games. It has to be part of the Olympics,” Loebsack said. “We have got to work as hard as we can on the world scale as well to get as many folks on board with this.”

The IOC executive board’s recommendation is only preliminary, and there’s still a chance that wrestling could be in the 2020 Olympics. Wrestling advocates are vying with other sports to be considered for the competition, and the IOC won’t make its final decision until September.

Wrestling’s supporters, however, must play a delicate game to have the IOC reverse the recommendation. The sports’ advocates appreciate Capitol Hill’s support, but are wary of their campaign taking on political overtones.

“The letters may not have the intended impact. While we appreciate the support and the intentions, we clearly know the IOC can misinterpret this support as political pressure, which we don’t believe is helpful,” Scherr said.

Scherr said political acts, like the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, can damage relations with the IOC.