SBJ/March 25-31, 2013/Opinion

IOC sacrifices wrestling for relevancy

Much has been written recently about the International Olympic Committee’s proposal to drop wrestling from its group of core sports. In making this decision, the IOC concluded that in order to remain “relevant,” it needs to shed fringe activities like grappling, despite the sport’s 2,700-year history with the Games.

Apparently, response to this bold move has been met with attitudes ranging from incredulity to outright suspicion. Much of this results from the fact that modern pentathlon, a sport with a somewhat less robust 100-year Olympic history, survived the cut. How, the argument goes, can modern pentathlon, a sport that was created to simulate the experience of a 19th century cavalry officer trapped behind enemy lines, be more relevant than wrestling, with its ancient ties and surging popularity due to the growth of mixed martial arts. Surely logic suggests that the opposite should hold.

Quite the contrary. The IOC should be applauded for its ability to look beyond logic and stick to its typical adherence to opaque decision-making and willful ignorance of common sense.

The IOC understands where culture is headed. The viewing public clearly isn’t interested in wrestling. It’s a sport that literally anyone can play: All you need is a slightly embarrassing piece of underwear that looks like the unnatural offspring of a one-piece bathing suit and a slingshot.

The IOC, like most reality TV producers, knows that people are drawn to things that reek of aristocracy and oligarch-esque sensibilities. From “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to “The Real Housewives of …” (where are they now, Topeka?), people want a window into the lives of our modern-day gentry.

And what sport does this better than modern pentathlon? I mean, once you get past the rather mundane running and swimming competitions, it’s ideal. The pistol portion evokes a certain 18th century “dueling-at-dawn” sensibility. Fencing gives off an aura of elite, Ivy League competition where participants retire to a drawing room post match to discuss technique over brandies. And don’t even get me started about the riding! While the dressage competition may hold a slight edge in terms of pomp and circumstance, the modern pentathlon can’t be touched for skill: The riders DON’T EVEN KNOW THE HORSES! I know, right?

Despite all this, most people believed that modern pentathlon would be dropped. The reason given is one that’s all too common in this modern age: data. Apparently, wrestling outperforms cavalry officer simulations in several Olympic benchmarks, including countries with wrestling organizations, individual participants, tickets sold, total TV viewership, average TV ratings and Rulon Gardner sightings.

Fortunately, the IOC was able to see through all those circumspect numbers and focus on the one data point that really means something: number of people who are vice presidents of the sport’s organizing body and sit on the IOC board and are the son of former IOC presidents. Here, modern pentathlon beats wrestling 1-0.

So with a clear understanding of our modern tastes and an uncanny ability to ignore facts and go with their gut, the IOC made its bold choice.

Other leisure activities have taken note of the decision and begun offering additional recommendations regarding keeping the Games relevant. Other possibilities include pairs croquet in place of weight lifting, polo rather than distance running, and (my personal favorite) celebrity private jet racing supplanting the shot put.

Wrestling, of course, still has a chance to get back in the IOC’s good graces. To do so, FILA, wrestling’s governing body, would be wise to consider modern pentathlon’s precedent. Perhaps Philippe Rogge might be interested in a board position?

David Almy (dalmy@adcpartners.com) is a principal of ADC Partners and teaches sponsorship marketing at the University of San Francisco’s Sports Management Program.


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IOC, International, MMA, NTRA, TES, Ping, Fila, DC

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