Monday, February 18, 2013

Save wrestling, ditch wiff-waff

It’s a common argument in politics: if you don’t want a service cut, suggest something else that should go instead. The money only spreads so far; everything saved must be balanced by something being lost.

That is the problem facing the International Olympic Committee. Seven sports want to be admitted to the Olympic family for 2020 but in order for one of them to come in, something else must leave. Last week the IOC decided that wrestling would be the sport up for execution.

When the IOC meets in September to decide the programme for 2020, the seven candidate sports — squash, baseball/softball, roller sports, climbing, wakeboarding, karate and wushu — will be pitching for a place at the top table at the expense of one of the world’s oldest competitive sports.

Few of us, in Britain anyway, really understand wrestling as it is contested at the Olympics. It’s a long way from the showbusiness that is American simulated wrestling or what we remember being presented on ITV by Dickie Davies, but it has its roots in man’s earliest impulses. Ever since we came down from the trees we have wanted to grapple.

There are cave paintings 10,000 years old showing men doing pretty much what Greco-Roman Olympic wrestlers do. The heroes are always at it in Homer, while it was introduced into the ancient Olympics in 704BC. Naturally, Baron de Coubertin wanted it as part of his revived Olympics (although he was squeamish about them doing it naked) and so it has been part of every Games with the exception of 1900.

Now it is to go and it feels like the Olympics is losing part of its soul. I would feel the same if modern pentathlon, a sport invented for the Olympics and which was also under threat, had been chosen. Much as I believe that squash should be at the Games, I don’t want it there at the expense of a core Olympic sport.

So, the politicians would say, if I want squash in and don’t want to lose wrestling, what would I cut? Personally, I’d get rid of golf or tennis, both of which feel wrong as Olympic sports (no one’s going to claim that a gold medal means as much to Andy Murray as a major title or that Rory McIlroy would take one over a green jacket at Augusta), but since money and sponsorship matter so much these days to the Olympic Movement they are probably safe.

I quite like the suggestion by my former colleague John Goodbody in the Sunday Times yesterday that the IOC could make room in the Summer Olympics by moving some of the indoor sports to the less congested Winter Olympic schedule (why not do weightlifting or badminton as a winter sport?) but I also can’t see that happening.

Instead, my choice would be based on universality. The medals on offer at the Games should, as far as possible, be available to as many nations as possible. That is one of the attractions of squash, which would give good medal chances to Egypt (just 12 Olympic medals since 1948, only one gold) and Malaysia (six medals, none gold).

Wrestling medals have been won by 54 different countries since 1896 and at London 2012 it was one of the most diverse sports, with medals won by 29 countries including Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Puerto Rico.

Only athletics (41 different countries won medals) was more universal. And what was the least? Ignoring synchronised swimming (3 medals) and hockey (5), both of which only have two contests, it is table-tennis. Just five nations won medals and China took all four golds and two silvers.

In fact, China has dominated table-tennis since the sport appeared on the Olympic programme in 1988. Of the 28 gold medals won in that time, Chinese ping-pongers have taken 24 (South Korea three and Sweden one). China has also won 15 silvers and eight bronzes. It effectively gives them six or seven medals every Games.

How can the IOC justify retaining such a one-sided sport? Surely if the Olympics are about the world united in sport, it is time (and with apologies to Boris Johnson) for wiff-waff to be cut from the programme.


Rahul said...

Instead of looking at medals won, can we check which sports has the least number of nations participating and cut it out?

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Baseball already had a go? Why are we going there again.
And putting golf in is a joke.
I'm always surprised Squash hasn't been touted before, but as you say manoveure some of the indoor sports to the winter olympics, makes perfect sense to me.