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Wrestling down, but former stars insist fight isn’t over

The sport of wrestling has produced a bevy of well-known emotional moments in the Olympics over the past three decades.In 2000, Rulon Gardner, who never placed higher than fourth in the NCAA tournament, faced the overwhelming odds of battling the most dominant Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time, Alexander The Experiment Karelin. Karelin, then 32, was as strong a gold medal favorite as there was in Sydney, Australia. Karelin hadn‘t given up a point in six years, had won gold medals in the three previous Olympics, nine world championships in non-Olympic years, and hadn‘t lost a match of any kind since he was 18 years old. He was considered as close to a sure bet for a gold medal as almost any athlete in Australia.When Gardner took a 1-0 overtime decision, it was considered by many as the single greatest upset in Olympic history in any sport.Four years earlier, Kurt Angle, in Atlanta, overcame a broken neck suffered at the Olympic trials to win a freestyle wrestling gold medal.In 1984, Jeff Blatnick, in Anaheim, Calif., who had battled cancer less than two years earlier, also captured a gold medal as a heavyweight in Greco-Roman wrestling.But now, wrestlers face a new battle. And this one dwarfs the others in importance. The most significant fight for not just U.S. wrestling, but the sport all over the world, is the one for both securing its future and having its Olympic history and legacy survive.It‘s a battle that came with almost no advanced warning. A week ago, almost nobody in wrestling was even aware the sport was on the verge of its worst news in more than a century, nor that there is most likely going to be no more Olympic moments, nor even Olympic wrestling in a few years.The news came Tuesday that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was dropping the sport of wrestling after the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.The final whistle hasn‘t blown on the sport, but it is clearly so far behind in points that nothing but a pin in the final period will save it.When the IOC meets between Sept. 7-10 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, wrestling will be pitted in a battle against baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art Wushu. The battle will be for the 28th and final slot in the 2020 games, and its ultimate survival as an Olympic sport. What makes the odds against wrestling even stronger is the same Olympic committee that voted the sport out isn‘t likely to vote a sport back in months later.But where people in the sport hold out hope is that the same type of politics that have nearly doomed the sport, can work in reverse. On Tuesday, the IOC Executive Board had a secret ballot, voting to drop one sport because golf and rugby were scheduled to be added.Wrestling, modern pentathlon and field hockey ended up as the final three under consideration to be dropped. They were in jeopardy based on a study that weighed a number of factors. Among the things to be considered were worldwide participation, history, popularity, television ratings and ticket sales.By most accounts, FILA, the international governing body of wrestling, did no late politicking, figuring the sport‘s history, being a fixture of the modern Olympics since its inception in 1896, and in previous Olympics dating back before 700 B.C., made it unfathomable it would be dropped.From what I read, a couple of the other sports on the chopping block had sent lobbying groups that were at the meeting, said Ben Askren, Bellator‘s welterweight champion, who was on the U.S. 2008 Olympic team and remains with close ties to the sport. Wrestling didn‘t have anyone there.After a series of votes, it came down to wrestling and the modern pentathlon.There were 71 countries that sent wrestlers to London in 2012. That number was limited because wrestlers have to qualify in international competition for their countries to be able to send people in the various weight classes. FILA has 180 member nations. Only 26 countries sent representatives to the modern pentathlon.On a worldwide basis, an average of 23 million people watched Olympic wrestling on television, peaking at 58.5 million. Those are not strong figures, and were part of the reason the sport was in jeopardy. However, the pentathlon had an average of 12.5 million viewers, and peaked at 33.5 million. But it had the lobbying efforts behind it of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the longtime IOC President, who pushed its own history in the games, dating back to 1912.Politics and geography worked against wrestling. The IOC‘s Executive Board members that voted came from 15 countries. At the last Olympics, there were 29 different countries that medaled. But the only countries in both groups were Spain, Sweden and the Ukraine. Field hockey, the third sport under consideration to be dumped down to the final rounds of voting, had representatives from 15 countries, but had recent medalists from Germany, Spain, Australia and the U.K., a li…

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