After seven months on the shelf, wrestling has finally been invited back on the Olympic mat.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to reinstate wrestling in the 2020 games during its special session in Buenos Aires, Arg. on Sunday. Wrestling received 49 votes; baseball and softball received 24 jointly, and squash received 22.
Local wrestling legends, coaches, families and friends gathered at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater to watch a live broadcast of the voting session.
Oklahoma State’s wrestling coach, John Smith, stared intently at the flat screen TV on the wall as the news came. He has been a major player in the sport’s resurgence since February and has seen the sports’ trouble in a different light.
“I felt like they were sending a message that wrestling has been in the ancient games and the modern games and they really expect wrestling to lead the way,” Smith said. ”The message to us is that we have to be at the top. We should not settle for surviving, not settle for getting in, but we should be one of the top sports.”
Wrestling was voted out of the Olympics in February without warning. Smith was thrown into the fire and became a key figure in the U.S.’s attempt at saving the sport.
“I was getting more than 200 emails a day from people who thought I could change it,” he said. “In the end, my role and everyone else’s role was a small part of educating the public here in Oklahoma: answering the questions, telling them how they can help, how they can donate.”
Assistant coach Eric Guerrero was a member of the U.S. Olympic team at Athens in 2004. He took the news personally when wrestling was kicked out in February.
“At first I was shocked,” Guerrero said. “But if wrestling teaches you anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.”
Once the initial shock wore off, he came to another difficult realization.
“Over the next six months, you start to think about wrestling’s future, you start to think about your children and you wonder if they’ll have that chance,” he said. “My son, Ishmael, has practice today at 2 p.m.
“You have to ask, will that opportunity to embrace Olympism and learn the values that it teaches be there for our children? You want that there for them to pursue.”
That opportunity remains intact, for now.
When the 2020 Olympics begin in Tokyo, Japan, wrestling will be a provisional sport. It’s the IOC’s form of probation- incentive for wrestling to continue evolving at a fast rate like it has this summer.
Nenad Lalovic, president of the sport’s international governing body known as FILA, has prepared the sport for the next step.
He orchestrated a rue change that has brought more points and increased viewership. He has helped add women and athletes to the governing body. He has also overseen the addition of two weight classes in women’s freestyle- a major advancement for the sport.
Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the Hall of Fame, was reassured by Lalovic’s actions.
“We re-established the integrity of the sport with our new leadership,” Lee Roy Smith said. “It’s one thing to have a plan but it’s another thing to have the right leadership who can implement it and execute it the way it needs to be.”