Wrestling with exclusion
You do not have to have been nourished on stories of the century-ago exploits of Amritsar-born Gama Pehalvan, as he literally had the great Zbyszko on the run, to be outraged at the International Olympic Committee's decision to initiate proceedings to expel wrestling from the Summer Games, 2020 onwards. You do not even have to have watched a single wrestling bout to feel the body blow from the news from Lausanne, the IOC's HQ, last week. And really, you only have to see how close field hockey came to being voted out in wrestling's stead to prune the core sports at the Games to 25 to know that the Olympics movement is now gone hopelessly astray.
For now, pending ratification in September by a wider electorate than the 15-member IOC executive board that chose it as the sport that would be discarded over hockey, kayaking, taekwondo and the modern pentathlon, wrestling is all set to exit the competitive stage where its highest honours have long been settled. In September, it will be battling for IOC approval with disciplines like wushu and wakeboarding and rollerblading, all up for potential inclusion in 2020. And just
so we don't forget that this splicing and dicing of the menu at the Olympics is now a way of life, in the meanwhile, in 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, we will have the pleasure of seeing athletes compete for golf and rugby sevens medals.
This feverish fit of discarding sports has afflicted the Olympics of late, with a 2005 decision to throw out baseball after Beijing 2008 coming after a gap of about 70 years (polo was dropped at Berlin 1936). Even the hyperpowerish disapproval of the then US president, George W. Bush, did not change the IOC's mind on that one. America, a wrestling powerhouse, is furious again at this month's vote — and this time you just have to scan the arc of wrestling traditions that spans from North America through Europe, the Mediterranean (including Greece's allegiance to wrestling dating back to the Ancient Olympics), Iran, Central Asia, India and East Asia right up to Japan to measure the injustice being attempted. And measuring that injustice is important, because that goes right to the heart of why sport matters and how its competitions are honoured. It could explain why every person who loves sport should take this personally.
The point, mind you, is not just the Olympics' ancient association with wrestling. The ancients would, in any case, likely be bored by the abbreviated and highly sanitised contests that now pass as wrestling bouts. The point is to place wrestling — yes, even for somebody like me, who first made acquaintance with it only because, frankly, an Indian snapped an individual medal in Beijing — at the centre to hazard what may be the standards by which something may be termed a core sport at the Olympics.
The IOC is oligarchically clubbish and incredibly reticent, and we have only news reports to indicate the criteria by which a sport is axed: television ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping issues, universal popularity. There was a time when universal popularity would have been considered key to tackling what sports should be axed to address the problem of the so-called gigantism at the Olympics. Every association wants its sport blessed by participation at the Olympics, and something needs to be done to curb the resultant unwieldy sprawl. Additionally, pruning is essential, if more sports are to be introduced to heed the changing coordinates of human endeavour.
But wrestling? To venture near a mat in a multi-country competition is to breathe in the dust wrestlers bring from local traditions worldwide. It is to be entranced by stories — many of them gathered for a beginner like me in David Wallechinsky's treasure trove — recounting the resonance of so many feats and the brotherhood of the sport. Of Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, India's first (and for many decades, only) individual Olympic medallist, whose village turned out to escort him back for the final 40 km after he won a bronze at Helsinki in 1952, the same Games where another Indian was placed fourth in the featherweight category. Of men winning medals while carrying abscessed ears and separated shoulders. Of an Azerbaijani medallist from the 1964 Games who was later involved in the theft of a Rembrandt to pay for a Japanese wrestler's treatment. Of the endurance of American Bruce Baumgartner. Of the initials JP attached to the Iranian hero Gholamreza Takhti to denote "Jahan Pahlevan", world champion. Of Sushil Kumar's shy insistence after his Beijing win that his mentor be an equal claimant to the accolades.
Stories are powerful vehicles not just in humanising incredible feats. Assembled together, as they are in wrestling's case, they illumine the standards that have been — and crucially, continue to be — set as a sturdy legacy for future generations to measure themselves against. Surely, when we measure the viability of sport in staying on in the Olympics, this living legacy must count for more than the fickle affections of television audiences. I challenge you to take beach volleyball and count for me ways in which it has a comparably evolving standard for accomplishment.
And hockey? That it came so near expulsion is stunning. I'd argue that if an Olympic medal is to have a core meaning in relation to a particular sport, it should be its essential stamp as that sport's supreme attainment. Heeding advice that a casual spectator at a multi-sport event is best served by taking one sport she did not know so well and, day after day of competition, tracking its progress, I took the opportunity at Delhi's Commonwealth Games to meet the teams, women's and men's, after as many hockey matches as I could. And I'd ask them, what is your highest ambition? They'd answer — to the last person, including the Indian challengers and Australian greats — just one thing, the Olympic gold. Nothing else would compare. Ask a tennis or soccer player the same question, and I doubt you'd hear the word Olympics. This is, after all, why cricket does not have a case for inclusion in the Olympics, never mind its Twenty20 portability and its gargantuan television audience.
India's sports administration is a complete mess right now. It now has a chance to signal a turn towards renewal by preparing for the September meet and making common and fruitful cause with furious federations in wrestling's great and richly diverse arc. Because you have to ask of those wise folks at Lausanne, what do they know of the Olympics who only the Olympics know?
The writer is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'