One vote down and a more important one remains.
The direction wrestling takes in the next three months will determine if the next one is as successful.
Wrestling cleared a hurdle when the International Olympic Committee Executive Board announced Wednesday that it was one of three sports considered for a final vote in September to earn provisional status for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games. More work is needed to overcome the challenge from baseball/softball and squash for one of the oldest sports to maintain in the Olympics.
Wrestling was placed on the chopping block in February when the IOC Executive Board recommended wrestling be dropped from the 25 core sports on the Olympic program. In an extremely short turnaround - wrestling had three months to prepare for Wednesday's presentations, while seven other sports had years - FILA, the sport's international governing organization, has switched leaders, implemented rules changes and alter participation.
University of Iowa coach Tom Brands echoed the sentiments throughout the wrestling world Wednesday. The news was positive, but wrestling has much more work ahead, because top-three doesn't accomplish the mission.
“If we can continue to present our case and be positive to the decision-making body, like we have, and continue to move the sport forward, like we have, and present it in a way that is in line with their way of thinking then we are going to get what we want in the end,” Brands said. “With that being said, there are no automatics. You have to continue to move forward.”
Cornell coach Mike Duroe has extensive experience coaching at the international level. He said the changes have been good, but more things can be achieved. Wrestling will need to keep adjusting and clarifying rules, continuing efforts to produce more action and higher scoring bouts. The focus is to enhance the action, which were hampered by international rules the last decade, and make it easier to follow for the casual sports fan.
“You can talk about rules, the competition schedule, how it’s presented to the public, anything we can do to enhance the sport from initiating these new rules, evaluating them and tweaking them if needed, and making our sport more exciting and appealing to the masses,” Duroe said. “That’s been the primary goal of CPOW (Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling), making sure wrestling is viewed around the world in a more positive light.”
Wrestlers shoulder the burden of performance. If they can't create enthusiasm with high-scoring bouts, the new rules are rendered ineffective. The results have sent a message, whether any individual intended it or not.
“The few competitions there have been it’s clear guys have been wrestling hard and putting points on the board,” Metcalf said. “Whether that’s to send a message to the IOC, I don’t know, but it is.”
Metcalf said the rules resemble the ones in place when he was younger. It was also a time when wrestling had solid footing in the Olympics, being in all but one of the modern era, beginning in 1896. This is a continuous process wrestling officials will need to take seriously through September 7-10 vote held during meetings of the IOC general membership in Buenos Aires.
“I think they are in the right direction,” Metcalf said. “I love the sport of freestyle. I think it’s good. There might be some more tweaks they have to make along the way between now and 2016 and now and 2020.
“As far as the IOC is concerned, I think they were happy to see FILA was flexible enough to make the adjustments that they wanted, and I don’t know if they were in the past.”
A broader spotlight is needed to promote the sport and its athletes. Television seems to be the answer for that dilemma. Reports said wrestling has not seen high viewership ratings. Now, officials will need a way to attract television, like it did when the United States hosted Russia and Iran for "Rumble on the Rails," which were duals aired live from Grand Central Station in New York. A couple days later the U.S. competed against Russia and Canada in Los Angeles.
Wrestling could receive a boost from a possible change in uniforms, moving from a singlet to more loose-fitting attire used in Mixed Martial Arts. The sport might want to consider billing marquee matchups similar to how the NCAA Championships concluded with Kyle Dake's attempt for a fourth national title against Penn State champion David Taylor on ESPN.
“There are things you can do to make it more appealing to television audiences and producers,” Duroe said. “To me, it has to do with how we create more spark.”
Brands praised wrestling leaders, who have spearheaded the charge since February. They have made big strides that will need to continue through the final vote. He also emphasized the efforts of fans and wrestling supporters. Their work has made an impact on the process and will be important as it advances to the next stage.
“It’s important that we realize this is a good step,” Brands said. “There is still a lot of work to do. When I say ‘we’ I’m talking about the public. The group that we have working on this - CPOW - in the United States and globally, knows what the challenges are.
"The public, don’t let your foot off the gas pedal. Those grass roots votes, Twitter awareness, things of that nature, make sure you continue to do your job diligently, because it does make a difference.”
Brands said he doesn't believe wrestling has to sell out to work its way into good graces with the IOC. The sport's tradition doesn't have to be sacrifice for evolving into a more popular one. The tasks at hand could expand to massaging the IOC members, lobbying for wrestling to secure the provisional spot or reclaim its status as a core sport by not approving the Executive Board's recommendation.“I think you’re making the sport better from a presentation point of view, and you’re presenting it politically, in a positive light, to the people who make the decisions,” Brands said. “I think we’re doing both.”