IOC Cuts Wrestling Participation

The International Olympic Committee recently announced sweeping changes to its program for the 2020 Tokyo Games and presumably on into the future, trimming the field for wrestling by 56 competitors across the three divisions. What this means to us is one of two things.

Either there will be 5 weight classes instead of the current 6 or I imagine wrestling could decide, which I hope they would elect to do, to reduce the number of qualifiers in each of the 3 divisions by 56. That sounds like a big number but actually it means we would only have to cut 3 qualifying slots per weight class, per division, to comply with the mandate.

It’s definitely the better of the two options, assuming the IOC will go for it.

Reducing the number of qualifiers in brackets of roughly 20 competitors isn’t perfect, but it does preserve the total number of weight classes. That’s a good thing especially when the athletes who are being denied, and I hate writing this, probably shouldn’t be there in the first place if the object is to find out who the Top 8 are in each weight. Those who “just” qualify for the Games aren’t likely to have a break out moment but regardless, I really dislike anytime opportunities are lost for competitors in any sport.

So I wonder; were we forced to go to 8 weights from 10 in 2000 and then in 2004 to 7 when the ladies joined our ranks, only to lose another weight class in 2012 when there might have been an option of dropping our qualifying numbers to maintain the weight classes? Probably not, but I bet FILA (now the UWW) didn’t even try to persuade the IOC to give the sport that flexibility; given they’re certainly not known for showing much interest in anything other than what might feather their nests. Remember, this is the same organization that agreed several years ago to find a way to increase scoring so they doubled the number of points for a takedown and said, promise fulfilled. But back to the question of qualifying numbers, what’s paramount to the IOC is not the number of medals given out as much as it is the total number of athletes who are present at the Games. So why should they care how we satisfied their directive?

If it’s the cost of additional medals that concerns the IOC, which I doubt is the case, the UWW could offer to absorb any additional expenses. They couldn’t cost very much, we’ve all seen how well they were made given the ones from Rio are currently decaying and turning black in spots.

As to how all this came about, the IOC had no choice but reduce the field given they recently chose to add 3 on 3 basketball and BMX freestyle to the 2020 family of sports. Consequently, given their athlete numbers are maxed out, there had to be a corrective shift.

So why us, why wrestling?

If I were to take a guess my money would be on the UWW’s arrogance, sense of importance and inability to make the sport as fan friendly or media attractive as they promised. Of course wrestling’s very obvious and inexcusable cheating (the athletes for monetary and political gain) scandal in Rio hasn’t helped much either. And of special interest, proportionally, wrestling lost more qualifying numbers than any of the other sports. And that means exactly what you think it does, which should send shock-waves throughout our community. Not the UWW though . . . I would be willing to bet not one of their leadership team has done the numbers yet to realize that we’re back at the front of the line for termination.

So if we’re to feel offended by this latest slight by the IOC, everyone’s index finger needs to point to, you guessed it, the UWW and then USAWrestling given that the second most powerful man in the world of wrestling is an American. There’s certainly a lot of blame to go around but most of it has to take roost in Luzerne and Colorado Springs. The sport hasn’t cleaned up wrestling’s governance gang or their reign of error so they’re right back doing whatever they want and whenever they like and the IOC can go pound salt. That might have something to do with how our recent reduction in numbers came to be.

Now, if anyone is offended by my inclusion of USAWrestling above, or would like to defend the IOC by saying that cuts were going to be made regardless of anything we did or didn’t do, are you sure? Yes, the International Olympic Committee had to make some tough decisions, but there are 22 other sports that were ignored and escaped the axe. To my point, had we done what we promised to do in 2013 when wrestling was doing its reinstatement genuflecting, the IOC would have given us a pass and trained their sights elsewhere.

Without a willingness to fall in line, the fact remains, wrestling still has a bull’s eye on its chest. And with every event the UWW administers and each rule they adopt, counter to the assurances they made in 2013 to clean their act up, add excitement to the sport and keep our rules constant for a while; the rings on our chest keep getting larger and the red brighter.

New Rules, Old Themes

Recently the NCAA rules committee released their latest set of changes. Although they’re still insistent on applying Band-Aids to wounds that require stitches and transfusions, and still overlooking topics that are certainly uncomfortable to discuss, I’ll give them some credit here for effort.

Regarding this year’s agenda items, I rated each of them as being either a Gold, Silver, Bronze or DNP (did not place) attempt at improvement. Let’s see where you might agree with me?

Facial Hair; DNP

I have an issue with any rule that specifies what length of facial hair is acceptable? It’s not the length, but the simple fact that they actually invested intellectual energy debating something that shouldn’t be an agenda item? What if the ladies decided not to shave their legs for competition, is the Rules Committee going to decide what length is acceptable there as well?

Yea, that was a silly parallel but seriously, aren’t there larger issues we need to address than getting sidetracked by the actual acceptability of facial hair and then what length works best? All this could have been handled with a simple statement that everyone has to be clean shaven; discussion over. That would have been too logical; keep it simple and make it a black and white decision. Instead they chose gray and with it will come future debates and political posturing such as; “what’s wrong with five eighths of an inch long, it’s only one eighth more than the current rule? What’s the big deal?”

And you can bet this debate will continue; all to accommodate less than .05% of collegiate competitors who feel they are somehow being denied a right to go into battle without a meaningful sized mane.

I guess my position here makes me old fashioned but like clothing, appearances are important and how the Rules Committee spends their time makes me question their ability to prioritize that which is important from that which is not. All they’ve done instead is open a door that should have stayed closed.

The Rules Committee should be focusing things like the length and timing of the season, not the length of an athlete’s facial hair. And in the absence logic, the RC has earned their first DNP.

Third Party Video;   

As I wrote in one of my blogs, allowing the same referee to review contested calls is like asking someone who’s about to receive a speeding ticket if they were actually going faster than the posted limit . . . with the driver’s response determining if the officer can issue a summons.

The same official that makes a call shouldn’t be expected to validate or overturn his own decision; just as our legal system has an appeals court that doesn’t include the trial judge whose judgment is in question.

The NCAA has needed, from the inception of video reviews, to employ a fresh set of eyes, a third-party registered official to be exact, to determine the outcome of protested calls for two very good reasons.

The first is the anxiety that is always generated by the protesting team and their fans. They know from the onset, whether it’s true or not, that nothing positive is going to come out of any protest. But at least the hope is there. Is that actually the case, no, 15% of all protested calls at the NCAA’s are reversed. But looking at it another way, it means that 85 out of every 100 protests are not upheld. And of the 15 that are, most of them are ones where the referee could back out gracefully due to being out of position as was the case in the Valencia – Hall match where the former used his opponent’s headgear to set up a takedown.

But regardless of the situation, it’s still this helpless feeling that any reversal will involve the referee who made the call admitting very publically that he somehow erred. Now I realize that any individual who makes the NCAA’s is an outstanding referee and yes, it takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong but we all know how human nature tends to work.

To that end, most of us believe that officials will always support their calls; as long as the video evidence isn’t conclusive, because who wants to admit they screwed up in the eyes of the fans or in plain view of those who are evaluating them. Granted a small number of calls do get reversed, but only where the video replay is so obvious there’s not really an option.

The second reason why officials always tend to support their calls has to do with competitiveness.  Reversing any protested call might very well be the difference between being selected to referee one of the championship finals or being one of the judges. You need to look at this as they do; its competition! 20 referees start Thursday morning with their names on a bracket sheet. Two days later half of them are in the consolation rounds judging the finals.

Whether you thought about this or not, as much as our officiating corps is a group of professionals, they are also highly competitive or they wouldn’t be here. Having a mat judge, who is never blamed for the final outcome of any decision, provide input to the referee who is accountable, does little to assure a harmonious and collaborative effort.

The bottom line for me is every athlete deserves our best and why I’m giving the Rules Committee a Gold Medal here for doing the right thing. Having a neutral third party decide protested calls is best for everyone and makes the road to fairness all the smoother.

Headgear;

It’s about time that headgear go the way of the Dodo bird. I can see the need to wear them in practices, but at the collegiate level, if these athletes are old enough to vote and give their lives in defense of their country, they should be able to decide whether headgear is something they want to wear.

If you think about the exposure to injury for a minute; the typical athlete wrestles over 10 hours a week in the practice room compared to maybe 30 minutes total of actual competition. So, if you were going to develop a cauliflower ear, where might that be? Now with that answer, I have another question. If the health and safety of athletes is the prime directive of the Rules Committee, why didn’t they ever make a rule that headgear had to be worn in practices? Could it be that the reduction of injuries wasn’t the goal and it was all for show? Hmmm

Dumping headgear, which has been long in coming, does several things that the fans should cheer. First, it eliminates all those irritating readjustment timeouts that we have always been forced to endure while second, eliminating an athlete’s ability to use them to set-up a takedown.

I’m glad headgear is now an optional item and for that the RC receives a Gold Medal.

Weight Assessment Protocols;

I find the Rules Committee’s handling of weight assessment protocols intriguing. They’re not very resolute when it comes to making the sport attractive to new fans but when it comes to weight loss practices and medical examinations they’re dead serious. I’d love to see more consistency and focus when they talk about making the sport great again.

Here’s what they did.

During their annual meeting in Indianapolis, they recommended a penalty change that would require a wrestler to miss eight consecutive competitions on any first offense regarding weight management protocols or prohibited weight loss practices. Wow, they’re putting teeth into this, plus the offending athlete will also be required to recertify their weight at some point during the suspension period. Some examples of no-no’s are urine manipulation during weight assessments, use of rubber suits, saunas, diuretics, intravenous rehydration and skin check forgery or deception.

I wish they’d make penalties as stiff for coaches who don’t wear a coat and tie for competition and be as serious about the epidemic of forfeiting weight classes. An example might be, at the collegiate level, if you want to stop forfeiting; any team short an athlete can’t compete in that dual meet of tournament. Draconian you say, maybe. But is that any harsher than missing eight consecutive competitions for a weight reduction violation? I’ll never buy a coach saying he couldn’t find someone for a weight class. They’re just not looking hard enough but if the entire team had to forfeit when they’re short an athlete, those can’t find athletes would quickly become found.

But either way I like the practice the Rules Committee is demonstrating here that they do take some things seriously. Had they done more of this, I would have awarded a Gold Medal. But in the absence of that they receive one of silver.

Funk Wrestling;  

It’s about time that the rules committee addressed the use of stalemates to neutralize the excitement that funk wrestling can produce. In the past, when the Rules Committee couldn’t wrap their arms around anything that was creative or didn’t fit comfortably within their standardized approach to scoring, they’d find a way to cancel out whatever they couldn’t understand.

This time around, finally, after years and years of overused and misused stalemate calls, which made Funk unpopular, the rules committee decided to embrace this style of wrestling for what it can be, an exciting and non-traditional way of skinning the cat.

Here’s what they decided . . . when in the neutral position, the referee will verbally announce a danger signal to any wrestler who becomes stationary on his back with his shoulders at an angle of 90 degrees or less to the mat surface. The verbal announcement will be followed by an audible three-count. If the referee reaches the third count and the wrestler is still on his back within the 90-degree angle, control will be considered to have been established and a takedown will be awarded.

Is this perfect, no, but it is a far cry from where we’ve been which was . . . if you can’t explain it, stalemate it. To be honest, I don’t know of a single position that athletes can get into which would actually qualify as a stalemate; someone always has the ability to improve their position. They just choose not to because the rules committee has given them a non-physical and a non-intellectual way of escaping a bad position. All a wrestler has to do is stop wrestling, act frustrated and wait for a stalemate call. By encouraging referees to take this way out, the Rules Committee was successful in killing some of the best scrambles a fan could ever hope to see while giving this style of wrestling a bad name.

It’s really simple, all referees have to say is, “I’m not going to call a stalemate but I am going to give green (or red) the takedown if nothing has happened after I count to 3” and sit back and watch the athletes scramble.

The idea of stalemates has always been a “millennial let’s be fair to all” rule that should never have come into being. Nothing is fair in war, it’s either kill or be killed. Nothing should be fair in competition, either you score or are scored on. Stalling calls are nothing more than a “we can’t figure out what to do so let’s have a restart.” And coaches have used that since day one and regard it as a very important strategic option.

It’s all very frustrating but it doesn’t have to be. When wrestling comes to a standstill all the referee has to do is decide who has the upper hand, not control, just the better position and start awarding points. Once everyone realizes that stalemates are no longer in play, things will change forever; and for the better.

This new attitude regarding funk is definitely a move in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough and why I’m giving it a Bronze Medal, mostly because it’s taken the RC too long to even get to this point.

But Overall; DNP

In closing, I’d like to address those who I know will defend the Rules Committee by saying it isn’t their job to market, or promote, or advance wrestling; they’re just there to manage the rules.

And they’re probably right; well . . . kind of, but not really.

Doesn’t each rule have as a baseline a certain philosophy that triggered the need for the rule in the first place? Maybe they don’t realize it but the RC is already marketing and promoting; everything they do has a direct impact on our survival or advancement as a sport. The weight assessment protocol is a good example of developing major marketing and promotion components. And the number of losses we continually have in youth retention, income production and the preservation of programs, they can all be directly linked to the RC’s actions or inaction.

If you think I’m off base here about the RC, if not them then who; if not now, when? If they were actually serious about helping the sport, they could expand their reach in a New York minute and the sport would be all the better. The NCAA has already given them the right, they’ve said, “you’re in charge, go do good for the sport.” It’s the RC that hasn’t been willing to take on that task. And God help any other group who might try because the RC will be the first to scream foul and say, “that’s our job.”

Well, if it is your job, then do it.

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6 thoughts on “IOC Cuts Wrestling Participation

  1. The IOC has moved from promoting athletic competitions to showcasing skills for the benefit of TV audiences. Think about the frog in the pot of water analogy. Wrestling will be gradually phased out to make room for more TV events.

    • You’re right my friend, and the question becomes, are we willing to do what’s necessary to become relevant, and I can’t say once again, because we’ve always been in the shadows of success. Or do we want to maintain our current course at the sports peril? Personally I’d rather watch a modified more modern version of wrestling on television than old videos of the sport because they’re not making any new ones . . . for obvious reasons. Sort of like why people visit museums to see the bones of extinct animals.

  2. I think you’ve addressed this before, but when I read the part about making the sport fan-friendly I immediately thought about Dake-Burroughs recent meetings, 2 of which I think have been decided on criteria with a tie score on the board, and I think Schneider beat Gadasov on criteria with a scoreboard tie. In the match Dake won at the trials, people were cheering for Jordan and didn’t realize Dake was ahead. Seriously – isn’t this low-hanging fruit? Maybe I’m just too low-brow to appreciate the true excitement of rulebook criteria scoring, but I think it’s ruining the quality of these matches to say “Dake won 6-6.” As always, I appreciate your input and thanks for your column.

    • Lane . . . I’m not so sure it’s the actual scoring that’s holding us back as much as it is a shortage of action. Soccer has low scoring games as does ice hockey but they are always great fun to watch because everyone is all over the place. Action, action, action . . . but our rules are designed more toward the strategy of winning by inactivity rather than activity. If we had things right, what you witnessed with Dake and Burroughs would be average on the excitement meter, certainly not what brings fans to the matches and television in to broadcast.

      We have just set the bar so low over the years that we can’t see how bad it really has become. Leadership has to take five steps back and try and see both the forest and the trees. Right now we have our heads in the sand and can only see roots.

  3. I have one obvious answer to the IOC’s downsizing of wrestling in the Olympics. Just stage the World Championships during the Olympic years. The IOC is not going to stop downsizing wrestling : given the trend, sooner or later we’re going to end up with 8-man brackets and three weight classes (small, medium, and large). The IOC’s vision for the Games involves variations on existing sports (3-man basketball) and a variety pack that includes rock-climbing. And our sport doesn’t fit into this vision unless the UWW/FILA comes up with an click-bait style like coed beach tag team wrestling.

    • Jaded . . . thank you for your input. Sure, we could drop out of the Games before being thrown out and extend our World Championships to fill the void but that doesn’t solve the issue at hand which has caused our failures. This is sort of like the philosophy of taking our ball and going home. Instead, we need to learn how to play nice with others and in doing so win their confidence and support.

      Wrestling should be and could be the highlight of the Olympic Games but our leadership team doesn’t have a clue how to make that happen. OR they do and are afraid to elevate the sport to that level because as soon as they do, and we become a major player in the sporting community, there will be other high level administrators, definitely far better than we currently have sliding over into wrestling. When that happens everyone of those who are currently holding us back will be replaced.

      Basically wrestling has risen long ago to its level of incompetence. If we want to grow anymore, those who are leading us need to be substituted for those with far more skills.

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