Legend has it that in ancient Greece, a woman could be killed if she dared witness a wrestling match on the hallowed grounds of Olympia.
Nowadays, officials would be more likely to toss her a singlet.
With wrestling’s Olympic status in peril, much of the male-dominated sport’s future lies in the hands of women.
The International Olympic Committee has made it known to FILA, the sport’s international governing body, that increased gender equality is essential if wrestling hopes to retain its place in the Olympics in 2020 and beyond.
Last week it was announced that wrestling – at the strong urging of the IOC – will add two women’s freestyle weight classes for the Rio Games. The sport will subsequently cut one each from men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman to achieve a “6-6-6” weight class split of the three disciplines.
“This is a huge development,” said retired Canadian wrestler Carol Huynh, a bronze medalist at the London Games and one of five FILA presenters for a crucial IOC meeting in May. “It’s going to be a huge change for women’s wrestling.”
The final vote on wrestling’s Olympic future is set for Buenos Aires in September.
FILA SENT A brochure to every member of the IOC on Thursday promoting women’s wrestling as its fastest-growing segment, calling that “a trend we’re committed to increasing.”
FILA has also allocated a spot for a female vice president and three spots for women on its bureau, while adding a commission dedicated to furthering women’s wrestling.
To highlight its push toward gender equity, FILA staged a symbolic exhibition in July that saw women wrestle in Olympia for the first time.
“It is very important for us to show our will to change, our will to have our sport in the Olympic Games,” new FILA President Nenad Lalovic told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
It’s not yet clear how the addition of two new Olympic weight classes will affect women – mostly because the sport’s entire future remains so cloudy.
But officials insist that women are embracing wrestling more than ever.
FILA does not yet track international female participation. But the number of girls competing at the high school level in the U.S. has grown from just over 800 to nearly 7,000 from 1994 to 2011, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
WOMEN’S WRESTLING JUST completed its third Olympic cycle in London last summer, and nearly all of the estimated 177 national federations now also sponsor a women’s program.
Adding two weight classes shouldn’t be an issue either, since women compete in seven classes during the world championships.
“Things have changed quite a bit over the last decade,” Huynh said. “Going back from the 2004 Olympics, and then 2008 and 2012, you can see how much women’s wrestling has improved in its quality as well as its quantity. There are way more female wrestlers out there that are really good.”
Should wrestling lose its Olympic status, officials worry that many countries would drastically cut funding for women’s programs. But if it remains in the Olympics, its next step would be in achieving parity in the female classes.
Until the rest of the world catches up, it’s Japan and then everyone else.
The Japanese, led by stars Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho, have won seven of the 12 Olympic gold medals awarded in Olympic women’s wrestling.
But female wrestlers don’t necessarily see Japan’s dominance as an issue. Instead, many view it as a healthy challenge that could push rival nations and spur growth.
“When I was a top athlete, my only motivation is to be the best and my reference was (Icho),” France’s Lise Legrand, a bronze medalist at the Athens Games who was part of FILA’s successful pitch to the IOC in May, said in an email to the AP. “Without ... (that) goal, it is difficult to advance and excel. I do not consider this rule as an obstacle to our development. Rather, it should inspire us.”
Though male wrestlers have been forced to give up two potential gold medals for the sake of modernization, everyone in the wrestling community knows that impressing the IOC is all that matters right now.
If wrestling is to have an Olympic future, it must include more women than ever.
“They understand very well. I didn’t have a single protest,” Lalovic said. “Men’s wrestling understands that they have to adapt.”