NEW YORK – It has been scarcely a week since the International Olympic Committee announced its intention to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, and the campaign to “Save Wrestling” is in full swing.
Donald Rumsfeld and John Irving, both former wrestlers, took to the op-ed pages to celebrate the sport’s Olympic legacy (which dates to the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C.) and its current popularity. Raphael Martinetti, the ineffectual president of wrestling’s international federation, FILA, has been ousted. Millions of dollars have been raised — Wall Street has a lot of former high school and college wrestlers — to underwrite a push for readmission before the IOC makes its final decision in May.
“It’s not in a wrestler’s DNA to hop on a plane and kiss a lot of ass,” says Michael E. Novogratz, a hedge-fund manager in New York who wrestled at Princeton University. “But that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing over the next three months.”
Of course, wrestling’s advocates can be expected to do everything in their power to keep their sport in the Olympics. There’s a larger issue here, though: the body they’re appealing to. The IOC isn’t exactly an honest broker, let alone a global federation committed to “excellence, friendship and respect.” It’s a self-recruited club of tin-pot emperors presiding over the greatest monopoly in all of sports.
Historians may disagree about the origins of the Olympics, but there’s no dispute over the architect of the modern games: the late Juan Antonio Samaranch — he preferred “Your Excellency,” in deference to his noble heritage — who ran the IOC from 1980 to 2001.
It was Samaranch, a fascist youth organizer in Gen. Francisco Franco’s Spain, who unlocked the true potential of the games, at least as far as the IOC’s balance sheet was concerned. Samaranch understood and embraced the commercial power of the Olympic brand. He initiated the mega-bidding wars that now routinely take place between aspiring host cities, while ensuring that the “winners” (the jury is still very much out on whether these events ultimately help or harm local economies) absorbed any financial risk associated with putting on the games. For its part, the IOC filled its Swiss bank accounts with billions of untaxed dollars from sponsorship fees and TV rights.
It was also Samaranch who presided over the increasing corruption of the Olympics, essentially making them a free-enterprise zone for committee members willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder. After years of rumors and denials, the sordid nature of the Olympics’ decision-making process finally became public in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Games, which turned out to have been delivered to Salt Lake City via a series of bribes to IOC members.
The Salt Lake City scandals led to what the IOC likes to call “major reforms.” What sorts of changes have those reforms wrought? Last year, Mexican media mogul Mario Vazquez Rana resigned in protest from the IOC’s executive board, accusing one of his colleagues, the former Kuwaiti oil minister, of buying votes.
Infighting is every bit as endemic to global sports organizations as corruption. (Look no further than the banana-republic antics of Sepp Blatter and soccer’s international federation, FIFA, for a good example of both.) And a seat on the IOC board is a coveted prize among a certain set of international businessmen looking to expand their spheres of influence. In such an environment, resentments are inevitable.
Given what we know about how the IOC does business, it would be beyond naive to think that it was a coincidence that Samaranch’s son, a member of the IOC’s board, is a vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union — and that the pentathlon, the kitchen sink of Olympic sports, survived the recent cuts on its merits.
Or maybe — and this is giving the IOC the benefit of the doubt — supporters of the pentathlon made a more persuasive case for its relevance than did wrestling’s advocates. Which raises the question: How much do we want lobbyists influencing which sports are given Olympic status? (At least Congress is accountable to voters for its decisions. The IOC answers to no one.)
There are basic metrics that can be applied to a sport: Does it enjoy global popularity? Does it produce a diverse group of medal winners?
Asking such questions would be far better than relying on the whims of a group of men (and a handful of women) whose reputation for openness and probity doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The IOC prefers to operate in a murkier realm. And without a competitor to its product — remember when Ted Turner tried with the Goodwill Games? — it can continue to do whatever it wants, in the process bending the world’s most prestigious sporting event to its dubious will.
So this is what wrestling’s advocates are up against — the institutional corruption of the Olympics. You like wrestling? Well, we’re about to witness the match of the century: Donald Rumsfeld, John Irving and the titans of Wall Street versus the ghost of General Franco.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed here are his own.