ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — And now for the gold-medal match.
Three months after wrestling got kicked out of the 2020 Olympics, the ancient sport is back in the frame and will compete against baseball-softball and squash for a spot in the games.
“We had the opportunity to have a second chance to compete,” international wrestling federation head Nenad Lalovic said Wednesday after the three sports made the IOC short list. “We took the opportunity. We won the first match but there is another one to fight.”
Of eight sports competing for a place on the 2020 program, five were eliminated – karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art of wushu.
The IOC executive board decided to recommend wrestling, squash and baseball-softball to the full IOC assembly for a final decision on Sept. 8 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Only one will get through.
“We are competitors. We had seven and now we have two,” said Lalovic, a Serb who has revamped FILA and led the campaign for reinstatement. “Be careful, we are good fighters.”
Despite a tradition dating to the Olympics of ancient Greece, wrestling was cut from the list of core sports by the IOC board in February. The decision caused an international uproar and prompted the United States, Russia, Iran and other countries to join forces in an unlikely political alliance to save the sport.
Wrestling has gone through a major upheaval since the rejection. Raphael Martinetti resigned as FILA president within days of the decision and was replaced by Lalovic.
FILA has brought women and athletes into decision-making roles and enacted rule changes to make the competition more compelling. Matches will now consist of two three-minute sessions instead of three two-minute periods, and scoring will be cumulative instead of the previous best-of-three system.
“Everybody understood what we have done,” said Lalovic.
“But we have to do much more, and to prepare ourselves for Buenos Aires with additional arguments. These will not be sufficient in Buenos Aires.”
Wednesday’s announcement came after the eight sports federations each made 30-minute, closed-door presentations to the IOC board.
The board voted by secret ballot over several rounds, with a majority required for making the short list and low vote-getters eliminated. Wrestling showed its newfound strength by winning on the first round with eight of the 14 votes. It took baseball-softball and squash several votes before they secured enough votes for selection.
“The number of this vote today doesn’t have any influence on the voting in the session,” Lalovic said. “It doesn’t mean we have any advantage in Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires, we’ll have the same starting position.”
Baseball-softball beat karate 9-5 in a head-to-head vote to win its spot on the list. Squash got through in the final round, getting eight votes to defeat wushu with four and sport climbing with two.
“It was never going to be an easy decision but I feel my colleagues on the board made a good decision in selecting baseball-softball, squash and wrestling to be put forward in Buenos Aires,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement. “I wish the three shortlisted sports the best of luck in the run-up to the vote in September and would like to thank the other sports for their hard work and dedication.”
The process has created some embarrassment for the International Olympic Committee, which was forced to row back from its previous ruling. The addition of wrestling to the mix has not gone over well with all the applicant sports and some IOC members. If wrestling wins the vote in September, that will defeat the IOC’s original goal of bringing in a new sport in 2020.
Men’s baseball and women’s softball, which have been off the program since the 2008 Beijing Games, merged into a single federation to improve their chances of getting back in. The two were cut by the IOC in 2005, the first sports dropped since polo in 1936, and failed several times to win reinstatement as individual sports.
“We’re just very happy that we made that shortlist and now I guess we’re in the seventh inning and we’ve got to go on to the ninth,” said Don Porter, the American co-president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation. “We’ve got a lot of young girls and boys out there who want to get their Olympic dreams back.
“I think that’s what all of us feel, that it vindicated (us) in one sense, at least to give us another chance to try to do that.”
Cuba’s Antonio Castro, a son of Fidel Castro and a vice president of the WBSC, was part of the delegation. The federation proposes separate baseball and softball tournaments of eight teams each, played as back-to-back six-day tournaments at a single venue.
The lack of major league players has always been a disadvantage to baseball’s Olympic bid. MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said the season won’t be stopped to free players for the Olympics, but the federation is working to get some MLB players committed to coming.
Squash is bidding for Olympic inclusion for a third time and tennis star Roger Federer is one of its backers. Squash, which would join tennis and badminton as racket sports in the games, would hold singles tournaments featuring 32 male and 32 female players. Matches would be played in two glass courts.
“I said to the executive board that the one big regret in my career is that I have never had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games, but I would happily trade all my seven world titles for the chance of Olympic gold,” women’s squash No. 1 Nicol David of Malaysia said.
World Squash President N. Ramachandran said he wasn’t worried by the fact it took many rounds of voting before his sport advanced to the final.
“As long as you’re on the short list, what does it matter?” he said. “That’s how I look at it. I think our chances are better than ever before. And who knows what will happen between now and September? Anything can happen.”
Perhaps the sport most disappointed with the result was karate, another third-time bidder after losing out in 2005 and 2009. Karate, which had been considered a likely finalist, scored well with four or five votes through several rounds before eventually dropping out with two.
Karate may have suffered because two other martial arts are already on the Olympic program, judo and taekwondo.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.