Hercules must be turning in his grave. The International Olympic Committee has recommended the exclusion of wrestling from the 2020 Games onwards. The proposal will outrage not just mythical, but famed, wrestlers such as this Greek hero but also mortals who recognize the need to preserve the chains that bind tradition to modernity through the agency of sports. The IOC has proposed that wrestling be demoted from the elite category of 25 “core” sporting events. If the proposal is endorsed in a meeting scheduled to take place later this year in Buenos Aires, wrestling’s loss could prove to be a gain for one of the seven other competing events that the IOC is looking at as an alternative. These include squash, rock-climbing, softball/baseball, karate, wakeboarding, roller sports and the Chinese martial arts, wushu.
The IOC’s proposal to omit wrestling has deeper connotations. The decision threatens to strike at the very root of a critical sense of continuity that has made the Olympics perhaps the most prestigious of all international sporting events. Wrestling featured for the first time in the Games way back in 708 BC, and has been included in every chapter of the Olympics save for one since the reintroduction of the modern Games in 1896. The preservation of this link lends to the Games not just its unique historical dimension. It has also helped the Olympics stake its claim as an event that prioritizes such timeless and universal values as honour, fairness and respect. It is perhaps pertinent to mention that the prize for a champion in the ancient Games was a crown of sacred olive leaves, accompanied, occasionally, by a lyrical ode composed in the classical style. The modern version of the Games has been able to retain, thus far, this sense of purity, even though the crown has been replaced by medallions.
The threat that lurks over the future of wrestling in the Olympics indicates that the IOC is being forced to yield to the pressure exerted by the spectre of commercialization on sports. Significantly, it has been reported that one of the factors that led to the IOC framing this contentious proposal was the fall in television viewership of wrestling. A thinning television audience indicates a loss of revenue. This confirms the suspicion that the fate of sports, even of one that saw the enthusiastic participation of no less than 71 nations in the last edition of the Games, will be decided not by history and tradition but by the forces of commerce.
The Indian government and its sports administrators will do well to mobilize the support of other nations to force the IOC to reconsider its suggestion. This is not only because India’s slim chances of striking gold in the future editions of the Games rest largely on wrestling. In a country segregated on the lines of faith, class and community, it is wrestling’s inclusive appeal and popularity that help ease the pressures on India’s social and cultural fabric.