LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – For wrestling, this may have been the ultimate body slam: getting tossed out of the Olympic rings.
The vote Tuesday by the IOC’s executive board stunned the world’s wrestlers, who see their sport as popular in many countries and steeped in history as old as the Olympics themselves.
While wrestling will be included at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it was cut from the games in 2020, which have yet to be awarded to a host city. Tokyo is currently bidding to host the 2020 Games along with Madrid and Istanbul.
The decision is a bitter shock for Japan. The sport produced six of country’s 38 medals at last summer’s London Olympics, including four of its seven gold medals.
“I cannot believe it,” said three-time Olympic gold medalist Saori Yoshida. “This is nothing but shocking and frustrating.
“A lot of youngsters, too, are aiming to compete in the Olympics, and they must be wondering what they should do from this point on.”
American Rulan Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic champion Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Games in an epic gold-medal bout known as the “Miracle on the Mat,” was saddened by the decision to drop what he called “a beloved sport.”
“It’s the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on,” Gardner said.
The executive board of the International Olympic Committee reviewed the 26 sports on its summer program in order to remove one of them so it could add one later this year. It decided to cut wrestling and keep modern pentathlon — a sport that combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting — and was considered to be the most likely to be dropped.
The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, antidoping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.
“This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling; it is what’s right with the 25 core sports.”
According to IOC documents obtained by the Associated Press, wrestling ranked “low” in several of the technical criteria, including popularity with the public at the London Games — just below 5 on a scale of 10. Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854 available.
Wrestling also ranked “low” in global TV audience with a maximum of 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million, the documents show. Internet hits and press coverage were also ranked as low.
NBC, which televises the Olympics in the U.S., declined comment.
The IOC also noted that FILA — the international wrestling federation — has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women’s commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.
Chiharu Igaya, an honorary member of the IOC, said he was stunned when he received word of the decision.
“I learned of it in a mail I received from the IOC,” he said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“This is one of the original Olympic sports. I don’t understand the rationale behind excluding it. Generally speaking, I was surprised.”
Japan Olympic Committee chairman Tsunekazu Takeda said it was completely out of the blue.
“I find it a little hard to believe,” he said. “There was absolutely no hint of this. I’m stunned.”
Modern pentathlon also ranked low in general popularity in London, with 5.2 out of 10. The sport also ranked low in all TV categories, with maximum viewership of 33.5 million and an average of 12.5 million.
FILA has 177 member nations, compared to 108 for modern pentathlon.
Modern pentathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since the 1912 Stockholm Games, was created by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement.
It also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president, who is a vice president of the event’s governing body, UIPM, as well as a member of the IOC board.
“We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others,” Samaranch told said. “We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives.”
Klaus Schormann, the UIPM president, lobbied hard to protect his sport’s Olympic status and it paid off in the end.
“We have promised things and we have delivered,” he said after Tuesday’s decision. “That gives me a great feeling. It also gives me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up.”
The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires.
Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for 2020, but it is extremely unlikely that it would be voted back in so soon after being removed by the executive board.
The other sports vying for a single opening in 2020 are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, a martial art.
“Today’s decision is not final,” Adams said. “The session is sovereign and the session will make the final decision.”