The International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program has focused much attention on the quadrennial process of revising the Olympic Sports. Unfortunately, much of the media has focused on the wrong issues. Their failure to call out the IOC illustrates the degree to which we still fail to see the IOC, and the Olympic Games for that matter, for what they really are. Hopefully, by seeing the IOC’s real reasoning behind wrestling, we can see that the IOC’s decision was rooted in commercial self-interest rather than the desire to promote global sport.
First, what is not relevant to the discussion? It does not matter that the Olympic Games has featured wrestling often. The media seems to focus on this fact as some relevant piece of evidence. Many sports in the program today such as basketball (1936), judo (1964) and triathlon (2000) seem more traditionally “Olympic” than the now omitted sports of dueling pistols, croquet, polo, and, yes, tug-of-war. These were all Olympic sports at one time. And wrestling’s alleged links to ancient Greece is also irrelevant. Modern wrestling, including Greco-Roman, has about as much in common with ancient Greece as the torch relay…that is to say, not much.
But its tradition or lack thereof doesn’t matter to whether it should be an Olympic sport. It also shouldn’t matter what wrestling’s television ratings or ticket sales looked like. I say shouldn’t because I believe this actually did play a major role in shaping the IOC’s decision. If the IOC was barely balancing its shoestring budgets and carrying a small, modestly paid staff, I could understand bowing to economic pressures. But the IOC is not. Although exact numbers are hard to find as the IOC is a private organization, but it according to Olympic researchers Steven Wenn, Scott Martyn, and Bob Barney, the IOC is the wealthiest non-governmental organizations in the world. It can afford to carry a few sports with low television ratings and not hurt its bottom line.
However, the media, as far as I have read, has not called the IOC out for focusing on such irrelevant factors. The Olympics, as opposed to the X-Games, was not intended as a corporate vehicle to increase revenue for its shareholders. It purports to hold a series of high-minded ideals, being about something more than sport. It claims to promote sport for all, fair play, character, and many other values that have nothing to do with profit. And this is where the decision to remove wrestling is so wrong.
The IOC not only hypocritically claims moral while cynically seeking cheap profit, but is willing to throw a sport that serves many athletes from developing regions under the bus to a key demographic. Consider who the IOC’s financial interests, which hinge primarily on maintaining its TOP sponsorship program. These sponsors are seeking access to people who will buy their products. And while Coca-cola and McDonalds may want access to burgeoning markets in Asia and South America, General Electric, Dow, Visa, and Samsung are more happy increasing sales in Europe and North America. Hence why sports such as golf and rugby are now included in the 2016 Games.
But the IOC’s most coveted demographic are the youth. Like all corporations know, if you lock people into your brand when they are young, they will stay loyal for life. Getting young people to tune into the Olympics will ensure a stable audience that will in turn help demand higher revenues from sponsors who want access to that brand.
Hence the IOC has made a massive push to expand the Olympic brand among the youth. They have developed and implemented the Youth Olympic Games under the thinly-veiled and patently false disguise that the Youth Olympic Games will help fight childhood obesity. They have also actively pursued emerging action sports such as the snowboard half-pipe, BMX, and more popular forms of combat sports. Also telling are the short list of sports scheduled to replace wrestling which include more martial arts, wake boarding, sport climbing, squash, baseball and soft all and roller sports (which means inline skating and skate boarding).
Not only are such sports popular and dominated by upper and middle-class European and North American youth, but they are also expensive and require specific access points. Water, climbing walls, and skate parks are not nearly as easily access as the gym mats used for wrestling. The ideals of the Olympic Games aim for inclusion and opportunity regardless of means. Ubiquitous sports like wrestling, which cost so little but are played by so many, should not be traded away for access to a key privileged demographic.
So while many people have decried the loss of wrestling, few have called this decision for what it really is: a trade for wealth and cachet over access and inclusion. The loss of wrestling is bad, but not because it has been around for a long time, but because the motives are so crass as to question the IOC’s role as a governing body in sport. Apparently the IOC is not above cashing in when the people being left out have little to offer.